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

Photo: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder