Osborne thinks we're a Mac. We're a PC

Our banks don't have a reset button.

I had a Mac well before they were cool. It was fine when it worked, but occasionally it would throw a hissy fit and leave me utterly helpless. Apple clearly knew full-well their machines were prone to problems. Their universal solution was to include a reset button, accessible by forcing a paperclip into a tiny hole on the side of the machine, which would override everything and restart the machine, wiping all your work in the process.

The problems with my Mac were so persistent that I used to keep a paperclip permanently blu-tacked to it.

But of course, Macs are perfect these days, and Apple is unassailable – the kind of business most companies could only dream of becoming.

And at the other end of the scale are the banks. They keep stalling. Every now and then they make worrying noises, and after five years on hold, the Help Desk (John Vickers), says it’s really about time we got a new one.

When George Osborne told us that 2013 would be the year “we reset our banking system”, I couldn’t help but imagine him walking around the impenetrable edifice of the Bank of England wielding a giant paperclip, trying to find the hole. Horrified city workers looking on, saying “I hope I’m not going to lose all my work”.

Yesterday he announced that he wanted to open up the UK banking market to increased competition. No doubt he sees Virgin Money and Metro Bank leading a charge of bright young banks, who will hit the high street with branches that look like the set of Big Brother and staff who look like the cast of Hollyoaks… All very “I’m a Mac”.

I’m sure, or at least I hope, that Osborne knows there is no easy-reach reset button, and no “turn-it-off-and-on-again” fix. I know it’s boring (don’t fall asleep), but the decision to increase competition in the UK banking system is not political or regulatory… It is about IT – it’s about enabling new companies to plug into the payments system.

And trust me, the payments system is not a shiny Mac with handy firewire ports. Our payments infrastructure makes Windows XP look cool. It’s a tangled, home-made mess that looks like the inside of Jackson Pollock’s brain. What forward-thinking, tieless entrepreneur would want to plug into that? Even in these straightened times, there are easier ways of making money, let’s be honest.

The fact is that Metro Bank, which provides customers with free dog biscuits in their branches, is the first new entrant into the UK retail banking industry for over 150 years. They have less than 20 branches, none north of Watford, and there aren’t many behind them in the queue for banking licences. Mobile phone companies are moving into financial services, for sure. But most of them struggle to keep our voicemails secure, and I’m not sure people are ready to let them look after their hard-earned cash.

Has he tried turning it off then turning it on again? Photograph:Getty Images

James Ratcliff is Group Editor of  Cards and Payments at VRL Financial News.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.