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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide