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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?

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