Payday loans: "Don’t worry, love, they don’t need your backstory!"

Welcome to the world of "zombie debtors".

I spent yesterday shivering nervously in the cold outside a payday loan shop in Peckham, south London. A woman with large, fake eyelashes took pity on me on her way out. I said I couldn't meet my rent after my boyfriend walked out of our one-bedroom flat. I was considering taking out a loan, but I'd never done it before. Could I make the repayments?

"Oh don't worry about that, love," she said as she grabbed my hand and breezed me into the warm store, "They don't need your backstory!"

It was only once inside I realised that my newfound friend got £10 off her loan for bagging another customer. Apparently I wasn't the first she'd brought in.

Luckily I didn't need the loan that day. But according to new research from the insolvency trade body R3, some 3.5 million Britons will be considering taking out payday loans in the next six months, forcing the government to introduce a new regulation yesterday. I'd heard the horror stories, but I wanted to see what it was like for myself by posing as a customer.

Inside the shop, I had to speak through a phone to the cashier, who was behind glass. When I explained I was worried about paying the money back, given my rent problem, she told me not to worry. The rate was 25 per cent, she said, and she could get it to me in 15 minutes.

She didn't tell me that if I missed the payment, the APR was 1,410.3 per cent.

When I added I thought I might lose my job next year, she didn't flinch. "We do loans on benefits too," she smiled.

When I told another company I thought I might be pregnant, they said I could always "roll the debt over" and just repay the interest.

R3 researchers claim almost half of us now struggle to make it to payday, rising to 62 per cent for 24-to-44-year-olds. This is fuelling a boom in the payday loans industry, which is now estimated to be worth roughly £2bn a year.

The survey also found that one in six borrowers is now a "zombie debtor", the label given to people treading water by paying back the interest on their loan while leaving the capital debt untouched.

I visited four other shops that day. There are many more clustered around Rye Lane, and that's not including the gold shops and pawnbrokers that are introducing their own short loans. With their flashing casino-style lights and tinsel-covered windows, they stand out. 'Tis the most lucrative season of the year.

In three out of four stores, I was not told the interest rate until I explicitly asked for it. Although these companies are supposed to complete full credit checks, one cashier said I didn't need to bother going home to get my financial statements; she could just make a "quick call to the bank" to check my last pay cheque.

There is a need for personal responsibility here, but when I made it clear I was anxious and didn't know what APR stood for, no one suggested that I seek advice.

Some stores were better than others. One said it could only lend me 10 per cent of my wages and a cashier at another suggested, with a wince, that I might want to think about "pawning gold instead". But no one turned me away.

Proponents argue that it's a free market, but it's not. Free markets require rational economic agents making free and informed decisions. But as Daniel Knowles points out in the Telegraph, people who accept a loan with up to 4000 per cent APR must usually be ignorant, or desperate.

Efficient markets also need free information. But that assumption doesn't apply, either. Borrowers are told it's a good rate if they pay it back quickly, but the APR rate given often hides roll-over charges and there can be extra Ryan Air-style charges for instant cash.

And let's be clear, this is not a service for everyone. There is a reason you find these shops on the high streets of Peckham and Brixton rather than Highgate and Chelsea. According to Consumer Focus, some two-thirds of borrowers have a household income of less than £25,000 and the average amount borrowed is about £300. This is a service for people without alternatives.

Thanks in large part to the campaigns of Stella Creasy MP, the government was forced to announce a tightening in regulation yesterday. But its proposals amount to little more than a voluntary code of practice. After my experience yesterday, this seems at best naive.

For a government that rallies against public borrowing, it has done very little to tackle the personal debt of our country's poorest people. It is not a coincidence that the number of payday loans taken out is growing at a time when the economy is flatlining, with no growth strategy. And there is something sick about charging £25 for £100 when taxpayers prop up the banks.

Any solution to this problem must have two sides. First, we need meaningful constraints on these companies. Debts shouldn't be allowed to roll over more than a certain number of times and powers should be given to local authorities to limit the number of payday loan companies on their high streets.

But, without viable alternatives, we run the risk of driving people to loan sharks. To stop that happening, we need to give people access to other forms of credit. The London Mutual Credit Union has just started providing one such option, and colleagues at Southwark Council have launched a new publicity campaign to spread the word. We can't afford not to listen.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage