Angry about bonuses? Here's how to claim back agency from the banks

By transferring your money to an ethical bank, you can make a change to the financial system.

By transferring your money to an ethical bank, you can make a change to the financial system.

A group of activists have been holding underground meetings in Old Street, London. They've been plotting the next big campaign to reform finance after OccupyLSX. I was invited to see what they were up to, and it looks like they've got funding, contacts and a sound strategy. Now that bankers' bonus season is finally upon us, they are set to launch.

The campaign is called Move Your Money. The clue is in the name. Imported from the US, activists are calling on the public to transfer their cash from large, casino banks to more ethical alternatives like mutuals, credit unions and ethical banks. Off the record they say they have some high profile endorsements, but we'll have to wait until the formal launch to find out names. They want a collective shift of assets from institutions that pay large bonuses, take huge gambles and make unethical investments to those that offer something better. Almost everyone has a bank account, so everyone has a stake.

The original campaign continues to send shivers down the backs of irresponsible bank managers in the US, as consumers keep moving their money from Wall Street to Main Street. Originally started by Ariana Huffington in 2009, a national Move Your Money Day led to some 40,000 new accounts being created last November 5th, according to the US Credit Union National Association. Meanwhile the campaign's video has got some 600,000 views and its website has twenty-five pages of press links.

A new holding website that went up earlier today confirms that this campaign is now coming to the UK. Activists say they have raised several thousand pounds from various undisclosed funders, enabling them to pay at least one campaigner to work on the project full-time. They plan to start revealing high profile supporters before they ask the public to transfer their cash during a "month of action" in March. We can expect high street stunts and public education events around the country.

There are at least three reasons why this is a highly strategic campaign.

First, it is wonderfully populist. It's a campaign that goes beyond left and right and -- given it's based on freedom of choice and information -- it's completely compatible with capitalism. It's not an anarchic call to bring down the banks or score political points, it's about education, personal responsibility and collective action.

UK Uncut and OccupyLSX have a reasonably good reputation, but they remain small groups who punched above their weight because of daring action and a hungry press. In contrast, this campaign will be judged on just how many people they can get to shift their money, forcing them to reach out beyond the usual suspects.

Second, it is tangible. Most people feel that they are living at the mercy of markets they cannot control. We've been told the banks are too big to fail, but politicians don't seem to be building a secure alternative. For many, the Vickers report doesn't go far enough. But this campaign gives people something they can do. By transferring your money, you can actually protect yourself as an individual, and reclaim your sense of agency.

Third, it is effective. Through a co-coordinated campaign, people aren't just protecting their own assets as individuals, but sending a message to banks and politicians as a collective. It might also lead the City to think a bit harder about bonus season. Move Your Money campaigners will be looking to establish themselves as the "go to" people in the media to get a reaction to these rewards. The more disproportionate bonuses are, the more support for this campaign is going to grow.

Watching politicians respond to this campaign will be interesting. Labour will be justifiably jittery about coming out against any particular banks after the misrepresentation of Ed Miliband's conference speech. But they should publicly and whole-heartedly support the principle of giving more information to consumers to move their money where they see fit.

The problem with OccupyLSX was that people and politicians didn't want to be seen as supporting a bunch of niche activists. If the Move Your Money campaign can become a truly popular movement, it will be harder to ignore. In fitting contrast to the financial system, the incentives of this campaign are truly well aligned.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours - but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.

0800 7318496