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.

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

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

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

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