The "people's bonus": which people, and at what cost?

Could George Osborne's "people's bonus" rescue the Conservatives' election prospects?

In an interview in today's Sunday Times -- a day before the taxpayer-owned RBS and Lloyds banks are set to announce £1.5bn of bonuses -- the Tory shadow chancellor, George Osborne, outlines a new policy:

The bankers have had their bonuses. We want a people's bank bonus for the people's money that was put into these organisations.

What it boils down to is the idea of offering cheap shares in the taxpayer-owned banks to ordinary families when the government's £70bn of shares are sold off. The Sunday Times interview frames it as a Tory attempt to seize back the election and give a positive edge to what has been an overwhelmingly negative election campaign.

Osborne couched his suggestion in diction that plays into public anger with the banks, speaking of the need to "recapitalise the poor". This certainly appears to be in keeping with the public mood. A YouGov poll for the think tank Compass, published today, showed the extent of public anger with the financial system. Three out of four people said they did not think that the banks had changed, and that they were still not being properly regulated, while 76 per cent of people wanted a cap on bonuses and 59 per cent supported a windfall bonus tax.

But although Osborne talks the talk -- the "people's bonus" suggesting a pleasing settling of scores -- is it really such a revolutionary move?

In fact, the proposal is a direct, and conscious, echo of Margaret Thatcher's privatisation of British Gas and British Telecom in the 1980s, when the number of British shareholders tripled. "It will be like the public offerings of shares such as the Tell Sid campaign of the mid-Eighties," said Osborne.

This was vote-winning for Thatcher, but the climate has changed: as the Compass poll shows, much of the current anger relates to the perceived injustice of banks going back to business as usual amid insufficient regulation, while the rest of society continues to suffer. Selling off cheap shares will do little to tackle the perception of a sector running out of control as jobs are lost elsewhere.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have jumped to attack the plans. On the BBC's Andrew Marr Show this morning, the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, dismissed it as "a silly little gimmick" and "headline-grabbing incoherence". He argued that it contradicted the Tory emphasis on reducing the Budget deficit, asking: "What on earth are they doing giving away the shares at a knock-down price?"

The Lib Dem Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, also criticised the plan, saying that it "beggars belief" to encourage the less well-off to invest in a volatile stock market. "The nationalised and semi-nationalised banks should be reprivatised when the conditions are right to maximise taxpayer return," he said. "Selling shares off at a discounted rate will not achieve this."

They have a point: if the focus is on reducing the Budget deficit and ensuring that the taxpayers' money is returned, it makes sense to sell off the shares at a time that will make maximum profit for the government. Moreover, the demographic of those investing in the stock market is unlikely to include the least well-off, who will nonetheless bear the brunt in the extra taxation that will be necessary if the government has not recovered all the bailout money.

Of the people's bonus, then, we must ask -- which people, and at what cost?

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.