For a “fair” financial system, the banks must give something back

The leaders’ economy debate overlooked society’s most disadvantaged, and their relationship to the b

If this election has a buzzword, it is undoubtedly "fairness", which, along with "change", has been co-opted by all three main parties.

Last night's leaders' debate focused on the economy, covering banker's bonuses, regulatory reform and reducing the Budget deficit.

But what does this actually mean for most people? For all the vague talk of helping small businesses and protecting jobs, there was very little discussion of those now sitting at the bottom of the social and financial ladder, who continue to feel the fallout from a crisis they did little to create.

There are two main issues here. First is the plight of small businesses, many of which are struggling to obtain credit. Just a few months ago, it was reported that RBS, 84 per cent owned by the taxpayer, had failed to meet its target of increasing lending to businesses by £16bn.

The Better Banking campaign points out that some 25,000 businesses a year with viable propositions find it impossible to access credit. Small businesses in the UK have the highest rate of failure of all the OECD countries, largely because of undercapitalisation.

This is not "fair", and if economic growth is to be ensured, lending to small businesses must be a priority. The three main parties have all made nods towards this, but it remains to be seen whether they will go far enough.

Second is an issue that has largely been ignored across the board. David Cameron spoke last night about protecting the "frail" members of our society and Gordon Brown pledged to create jobs, while Nick Clegg argued for a tax system that is "fairer" to those on low incomes.

But what about the millions of people whose income is too low to pay any tax? Between five and seven million people have no access to credit because they don't have a bank account, or any credit history.

These people are disenfranchised, and at risk of falling into a cycle of debt. In January, the Financial Inclusion Centre said 100,000 families had borrowed £29m in total from illegal moneylenders over Christmas. The average amount borrowed was £288, but the average repayment was £820.

Even apart from such illegitimate loans, these families lose an extra £1,000 each year on average, through not being able to set up direct debits or flexible billing arrangements.

The 2010 Budget stated that banks would be legally obliged to provide a basic bank account to all UK citizens, to begin to redress the balance between banks and society's most disadvantaged members. It remains to be seen whether this will be upheld in the emergency Budget published after the election.

The Better Banking campaign is urging the party leaders to implement a series of measures: full disclosure on lending to small businesses, incentives and obligations for banks to take social responsibility, capping the amount that can be charged for credit, and reinvesting 1 per cent of banks' profit for public benefit.

Labour has adopted some of these promises in its manifesto, and the other parties must follow suit. The deep-seated sense of injustice felt by much of the electorate will not disappear, as disadvantaged people and local communities continue to suffer while banks return to profit. From this perspective, splitting banks up, or temporarily capping bonuses, all seem like distant, token measures.

As the banking crash painfully illustrated, the financial sector has roots running deep into every section of our society. The only way that long-term "fairness" can be ensured is if a more reciprocal relationship is created, in which the banks nurture the society that bailed them out.

Follow the New Statesman team on Facebook.

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

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage