Welby’s war on Wonga

Are the Archbishop of Canterbury’s plans to take on payday lenders heroic or harebrained?

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks about his desire to compete payday lender Wonga “out of existence” by strengthening credit unions in the UK has got people thinking power has gone to his head.

However, Archbishop Welby could be on to something, if the Church gets its execution right. Just look at the success of Islamic banking to see how religion can be a powerful force in banking. The first question is: why would the Church take on a market leader in its own game from a standing start? The second is whether credit unions are a business the Church should be getting into, given that mainstream lenders steer clear of this sector with a bargepole?

The first answer is pretty simple: the Church loves a fight. Think the Crusades, gay marriage or female priests. Although the latter two show that more recently it’s been internal rather than external conflicts. So Archbishop Welby picking a fight with payday lenders, of which Wonga is the best known, is par for the course. Welby said this could be a “decade-long process”, which again isn’t a concern, since the Crusades lasted 200-odd years. A couple of decades is a cakewalk.

So now to the second question, why do it? Backing credit unions is risky, but could pay off, for several reasons, not least the social good it could generate.  There is little doubt that credit unions represent a small slice of the overall retail /commercial banking, although that is changing. According to the most recent unaudited figures by the Association of British Credit Unions, there are 1,025,438 people in the UK using credit unions, including over 123,000 junior savers. Since 2007, the number of members has increased by almost 50 per cent while the number of credit unions has dropped by 23 per cent. The Department of Work & Pensions say up to seven million people use sources of high cost credit e.g. home credit, pay day lenders and pawnbrokers.

So there is a rising market worth £2bn, with a falling number of competitors – both good and bad news. Good because there’s demand, bad because it’s tough to make money.

A second reason is that the Church has a strong brand to leverage off, a loyal customer base (parishioners) and presumably trust in its overall intentions, something badly lacking from many mainstream retail banks. Thirdly, on the surface, its costs/overheads would be relatively low. It already owns the church halls and properties it’ll operate the credit unions out of – a reason why many mainstream banks have cut back branch numbers. It also has a ready supply of cheap labour. According to Welby, there are plans to encourage church members with relevant skills to volunteer at credit unions. It would need to invest in an easy-to-use and quick technology platform to make the most of its countrywide scale.

Now to the downsides. The main reservation about launching such an initiative is the fact that most financial institutions steer clear of the sub-prime sector because there’s significant risk. Mainstream banks don’t go there because these are high risk loans with a danger of not having them paid back. Although Airdrie Savings Bank has launched its own short-term loan, Co-op is an example of a mutual (so not in itself a credit union) that is clearly not working at the moment. Finally, there is the reputational risk. If Church-backed credit unions were caught up in a PPI-style, or sub-prime mortgage, scandal, it would lose the trust of not only its customers, but its parishioners too – the ultimate death knell for The Church.

So why do it? To provide an alternative for those who can’t get credit from traditional lenders, with a social, rather than profit, motive is a noble cause. I wish them good luck, but with the words from a report by Civitas ringing loudly: "To be effective charities, they must first be effective financial institutions."

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Photograph: Getty Images

Nick Moody is the editor - Private Banker International at Progressive Media Group.


Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

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