As the cuts bite and growth stagnates, who will challenge our reckless bankers?

In the absence of major re-regulation our financial system remains dangerously dysfunctional.

Source: Getty Images

The humiliation of Fred Goodwin may have appeased a public baying for vengeance, but has done little to fix the broken global banking system or reverse the Second Great Depression. But then the public have been given very little leadership as to how to address the causes of this crisis. Politicians, economists, central bankers and think-tanks have both created an almighty mess, but also sown confusion as to the true reasons for catastrophic economic failure. Instead the public have deliberately been blind-sided, distracted into focussing on a) the public sector and b) a consequence of the crisis: the public finances.

Fred Goodwin's hounding shows that while you can fool the people some of the time, you can't do so all of the time. Nevertheless, stripping Goodwin of his knighthood does not fix the banking system, or help the economy recover.

Last week Jonathan Portes of the NIESR helped subvert some of the propaganda by boldly speaking truth to power. To the consternation of many he showed that the ongoing slump is now longer and deeper than the slump of the 1930s. While the players in stock markets remain unmoved by this truth, it unnerved the establishment and all those who insist on a disastrous form of economic bloodletting: austerity. These economic 'quacks' include MPs in all three major political parties; their friends in the City, the press and economics profession - and not forgetting those at the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Only a year ago the IFS followed the herd and urged the Coalition not to soften its stance on austerity. Now as contraction crushes the life out of the economy, hurts the poor and families with children, the IFS makes a mealy-mouthed appeal for "a significant short-term fiscal stimulus". That IFS economists are not embarrassed by the contradictions and absurdity of their analysis is disturbing. That they remain unchallenged can only be explained by the sustained ideological drum-beat that drowns out sound economic analysis.

The Bank of England helped silence some of this propaganda when it issued figures last week which show, unsurprisingly, that neither austerity nor massive taxpayer bailouts have restored the British banking system to solvency. In the absence of major re-regulation, it remains dangerously dysfunctional.

Banking systems exist to lend money into the economy. Not so today's. British banks are so over-leveraged (i.e. insolvent) that they cannot fulfil their role as lenders. Instead of acting as a lending machine, the British banking system, bizarrely, is now a borrowing machine. Like giant vacuum cleaners, banks are hoovering up the nation's public and private resources, while refusing to lend, except at high rates.

The BoE data shows that banks siphoned up £11bn more from the real economy than they lent to firms last year. And to compound the damage, bankers borrowed from the nationalised Bank of England at rock-bottom rates, and then lent to firms at high and rising, real rates of interest. This helps explain the ongoing slump that characterises the Second Great Depression. Banks are charging a whopping 20% for authorised overdrafts - and rates are set to rise higher. Despite this massive spread, they are still not raking in enough to clean up their balance sheets, render banks solvent, and start lending again.

And still government and the official opposition turn a blind eye. Neither proposes to radically re-structure and re-regulate Britain's broken financial system - to subordinate arrogant bankers to their proper role in the economy, and to restore stability.

Until they do, expect many more Fred Goodwins to be bundled into media tumbrils, and hauled up on to the scaffold of public humiliation.

Ann Pettifor is director of Advocacy International

Getty
Show Hide image

Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.