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

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.