PMQs review: Cameron turns Brown and Miliband turns red

Cameron is sounding ever more like Gordon Brown, while Miliband is turning left.

As the economy continues to struggle, David Cameron is sounding ever more like his predecessor. Asked by Ed Miliband at today's PMQs to respond to growth of just 0.5 per cent in the last 12 months, Cameron replied that any growth should be welcomed amid the "global storm in the world economy". The man who once mocked Gordon Brown for blaming "global conditions" for weak growth now steals his lines.

Miliband went on to ask his favourite question: does the Prime Minister know how many businesses have been helped by the [insert failing growth policy]? In the case of the Business Growth Fund, which has five offices and 50 staff, the answer was just two. From there, as Miliband raised the subject of FTSE 100 directors' pay, the exchanges descended into a noisy squabble over who had taxed the rich the most, over who had been meanest to the bankers.

Cameron pointed to the rise in capital gains tax, the new levy on non-domiciles and the tax deal agred with Switzerland. Miliband reminded him that it was the last Labour government that introduced the 50p tax rate, which the Tories want to abolish. His full-throated support for the top rate (the fourth highest in the world) will raise eyebrows in Westminster but never forget that, as poll after poll has confirmed, most voters favour it.

That wasn't the only moment when Ed sounded redder than he has for some time. For the first time, he echoed the language of the St Paul's protesters, accusing Cameron of always favouring the 1 per cent over "the 99 per cent". It was further evidence that the Labour leader believes the political spectrum is shifting leftwards. If he is right (as we must hope is), the political rewards could be great.

It was left to Alistair Darling to sound a sombre note and remind the House that the Greek crisis is entering its terrifying endgame. As he urged Cameron to persuade the G20 to produce more details on the alarmingly vague rescue package, events in Westminster suddenly felt a lot smaller.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation