Europe moves to a financial transactions tax — will we follow?

Eleven countries made the decision to introduce a tax on financial transactions yesterday. Simon Chouffot argues we should take heed.

Just as David Cameron appeared to be grabbing his coat for an EU exit, other European countries took a step towards greater unity with agreement for eleven countries to implement a multi-billion pound tax on the banks.

Not tax rises on low income families, or cuts to public services to balance the books, but a tax on banks. It's not every day you get to write that. The eleven hope that the Financial Transaction Tax of between 0.1-0.01 per cent on stocks, bonds and derivatives could be implemented as early as next year and will raise around £30bn.

The FTT has for years stirred controversy. Banks, following the Mayan's lead, warned that the end of the world was nigh. As campaigners for a Robin Hood Tax we have often been told "you may have a nice video with Bill Nighy in it, but your idea won't wash in the complex world of finance, nor will it cut it at the coalface of Government."

Yet it has – Europe's biggest economies including France, Germany, Italy and Spain are signed up. The group of eleven makes up an impressive 90 percent of Eurozone GDP. Other European nations agreed to let them press ahead. Yet there was one notable abstention, from the UK Government.

Why? It could be argued that a right of centre Government, a powerful financial sector and an economy struggling to return to growth would never add up to much of an appetite to take a chunk out of the banks. Yet all of this applies to Germany, one of the FTT's biggest champions.

The difference is that Germany sees the FTT as a necessary part of the economic equation. It too is implementing tough austerity measures. Germany understands the need to balance and indeed improve the economy by ensuring the financial sector pays its fair share. The richest sector in the world, paying a modest additional tax for causing the largest financial crisis of a generation: quid pro quo.

As Wolfgang Schauble, German finance minister said:

It’s in the interest of the financial sector itself that it should concentrate more on its proper role of financing the real economy and ensuring that capital is allocated in the most intelligent way, instead of banks conducting the bulk of their trading on their own account. That’s in the long-term interest of the financial sector.

Cameron, conversely, opted to call the Financial Transaction Tax "madness", fighting hammer and tong to protect the hallowed elite in the City, whilst cutting benefits and services for the poorest. The Government's much touted bank levy, will raise a just £2.5bn a year and be offset by a lowering of Corporation Tax that Osborne has boasted will be the lowest of any major western economy.

Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England pointed out the irony that "the price of the financial crisis is being borne by people who did absolutely nothing to cause it", adding that he was "surprised that the degree of public anger has not been greater than it has".

But if the moral argument doesn't sway you, then the fiscal case should. Leading City figure Avinash Persaud has calculated that if the UK were to join in with the European Financial Transaction Tax it would raise the Exchequer at least £8bn a year. This could lift over three million people struggling on minimum pay above the living wage threshold.

Ten thousand teachers lost their jobs in 2010/2011 and there are 5,780 fewer nurses than at the time of the last general election – in eleven days an FTT could raise enough revenue to re-employ every one. In just a single day the tax could raise enough money to reinstate Sure Start centres for 25,000 children.

EU tax chief Algirdas Semeta described the FTT agreement as a “major milestone” that can “pave the way for others to do the same." The door has been left open and we should continue to press the UK Government to walk through it. The Labour Party wanted cover to fully back this tax – they now have it.

But this doesn’t have to be another case of Britain versus Europe. The UK has already got an FTT on share transactions – stamp duty – that raises some £3bn a year for the Exchequer without driving business away. Extending this to bonds and derivatives is not a dramatic leap and surely one that makes moral and financial sense.

As Cameron distances himself from Europe this is one item we should be reminding him is still on the agenda.

Demonstrators dressed as Robin Hood make their way down the Chicago River. Photograph: Getty Images

Simon Chouffot is a spokesperson for the Robin Hood Tax campaign and writes on the role of the financial sector in our society.

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Is our obsession with class propping up the powerful?

Lynsey Hanley’s memoir Respectable: the Experience of Class attacks the sharp-elbowed bourgeoisie – but society will only be transformed by building coalitions between the middle and working classes.

Class is no longer banished from mainstream discussion, but it remains an uncomfortable topic for most mainstream media. The background to this is straightforward. The media all too often discriminate on the basis of parental wealth rather than talent: from unpaid internships to expensive postgraduate journalism qualifications, the routes into the industry are difficult to traverse without parents able to offer financial support. But most of us want to believe that our successes are personal achievements: that if we do well, it is because of our own ability, intelligence and determination. To realise that actually, you have queue-jumped, in effect, because of your parents’ bank balance: well, that would provoke insecurity and defensiveness. And so journalists and columnists are often disinclined to understand why society is stacked in the interests of some, but not others. Even raising the issue of class is felt as a personal attack.

That is one reason Lynsey Hanley is such a crucial voice. When she writes about class, she is writing about lived experience. Her new book, Respectable – the belated follow-up to her seminal Estates, published in 2007 – is a powerful investigation into the psychological impact, and cost, of shifting from class to class. She compares it to “emigrating from one side of the world, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if you are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life”. The case study? Hanley herself. The Personal Is Political would be as appropriate a subtitle for this book as any other.

Respectable compellingly (if sometimes erratically) weaves autobiography with academic research. Hanley grew up on a council estate in Chelmsley Wood, a 1960s ­new-build area of Solihull, in the West Midlands, a few miles from Birmingham. Her childhood, she says, would once have been labelled “respectable working class”: far removed from middle class but not “quite classically working class either” – rather, “foreman class” or “skilled tradesman class”. It feels wrong to infringe on Hanley’s right to self-define, but she does seem to have a very restrictive view of what being working class entails, so much so, that she isn’t entirely convinced she belongs. There has long been a clash between those who define class as a cultural identity and those who believe it has more to do with economic relationships (and those who think it is a combination of the two).

At Hanley’s school, “people didn’t do A-levels”. The high achievers ended up at the gas board or the Rover works and the word “university” evoked “something as distant as Mars”. Her school had 600 unfilled places, “effectively . . . abandoned by the community as much as by the local authority and by central government”. Hanley has always felt like an outsider: she struggled to make friends, found the limits of what was expected of someone from her background suffocating, and when – against the odds – she made it to sixth form, it seemed “one minute I was struggling for air, the next I felt as though I’d entered a large bubble of pure oxygen”. She looks to academics to help explain experiences she found difficult to navigate at the time. Her sense of isolation, for instance, can be illuminated by the sociologist Angela McRobbie’s exploration of “the ‘hermetically sealed’ nature of working-class culture in Birmingham”. The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic, is her Bible; she feels he “could have been writing about my own childhood”.

Aged 17, Hanley was juggling five ­A-levels with four jobs: working at Greggs, selling Avon products, delivering newspapers and “making cakes and chocolates and selling them door to door”. But she became a professional journalist. When she was a teenager she visited Aldi to buy margarine and glacé cherries; now she comes back with “cold-pressed rapeseed oil and Pinot Noir”. She says “lunch” where she used to say “dinner”.

This is a well-crafted book full of insights. Hanley is determined to challenge the assumptions of left and right. She refers to socio-linguists such as Basil Bernstein, who examined how middle-class forms of communication were given preference over working-class expression but not because they were innately superior. Those who made the leap from working class to middle class found themselves assimilated by the new world. Many found it increasingly difficult to relate to the world they grew up in, and the people they grew up with.

Hanley thinks the approaches of both left and right to social mobility are problematic. Whereas the right uncritically worships the idea of “social mobility” – of parachuting the “lucky few” into the middle class without challenging the structure of society – the left, she says, believes that “social justice and social mobility are mutually exclusive”. In other words, she is questioning that old socialist maxim: “Rise with your class, not above it.”

Hanley assails those – including me – who place support for populist anti-immigration movements in a broader social context. She believes that we are downplaying the extent of racism in working-class communities, reducing it to fears over housing and jobs. We are robbing people of agency by letting individuals off the hook for their prejudices, she argues, stressing the casual racism she encountered on a daily basis. Disturbingly, she found that racism was often seen as a “sign of respectability”. She remembers sentiments along the lines of “Only common people hang out with darkies” and so on. My parents met through the Trotskyist movement; my father eventually became a white-collar local authority worker, my mother an IT lecturer at Salford University, and I was always by far the most middle-class of my friends. I’m not going to wish away the casual racism I encountered growing up in Stockport (and I’m white), but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Hanley’s argument. Why is there an anti-immigration party with mass support now, yet there wasn’t one in the 1950s, when bigotry was far more open and widespread? Surely something has changed, and rising job, housing and general economic insecurity have had a role to play? And will a strategy of criticising people for voting Ukip – or even for the far right – win them over?

My main problem with Hanley’s book is this. Those of us who want to transform society so that it is not run as a racket for a tiny elite need to build a broad coalition. I’m a political activist who writes; Hanley is someone writing about reality as she has lived it. But her book surely challenges attempts to build unity between the working and middle classes. She writes of how middle-class people both hog and deny their “social and cultural capital”, and believes that those who argue in favour of a “99 Per Cent” under attack by an elite help entrench middle-class privilege. The middle classes pretend they have the same interests as the working class, while using their sharp elbows to keep them down.

I wonder if there is a third way. Abolish unpaid internships; introduce scholarships; invest in education at an early age; automatically enrol the brightest working-class young people into top universities; deal with social crises, such as the lack of affordable housing, which help destroy opportunity for the less privileged; have a proper living wage. And so on. But if those who believe in social justice fail to build a coalition of supermarket worker and schoolteacher, cleaner and junior doctor, factory worker and university lecturer . . . well, we will fail. From the low-paid against the unemployed, to private-sector against public-sector worker, to indigene against immigrant, there are enough divisions exploited by the powerful as it is.

Nonetheless, Respectable is of vital importance: a searing indictment of a chronically unjust society in which our opportunities are granted or denied from the earliest of ages. The book may not offer clear prescriptions, but it is incumbent on all of us to fight for a just and equal society – one that currently does not exist. 

Owen Jones’s Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class is newly republished in paperback by Verso

Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley is published by Allen Lane (240pp, £16.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism