Paul Tucker attempts to spice up British monetary policy

Negative interest rates are like candy floss to central bankers, it is believed.

In the midst of his testimony to the treasury select committee, Bank of England deputy governor Paul Tucker gave a suggestion that Britain might be considering some unorthodox monetary policy of its own:

I hope we’ll think about whether there are constraints to setting negative interest rates. This would be an extraordinary thing to do and it needs to be thought through very carefully.

Such a move would be unlikely to affect the Bank's base rate. While we still have cash, that rate is pretty firmly stuck at the zero lower bound, because savers will always be able to withdraw savings as cash and horde it that way, safely out of reach of the banks trying to charge interest on their money.

Instead, it would be the rate paid on the Bank's overnight deposits which would be hit. This is the sum the Bank pays to other banks which leave their money with the Bank of England. It's basically the interest rate the Bank charges when it's actually acting like a bank. It can get away with it because, while withdrawing your savings and stuffing them under a pillow may work for you or I, it's less of an option for Halifax or HSBC.

The Financial Times' David Keohane thinks that the statements, which echo suggestions in the minutes of the monetary policy committee released last week, could be an attempt to talk down the value of the pound. Keohane writes:

Throwing around the negative interest rates idea has become very trendy all of a sudden with Draghi, Praet and Constancio weighing in and, we'd argue, using the threat to substitute for policy impotence.

Was Bank of England deputy governor Paul Tucker doing the same thing? Using a jedi-trick to talk down sterling perchance?

Of course, as Keohane points out, if that was the aim, it didn't do a whole lot of good. The effect of Tucker's words is almost lost in the general volatility of the market today:

Maybe the Bank of England is just feeling a little bit jealous of its Japanese counterpart? After all, they're gearing up to do all kinds of cool new things with monetary policy — Foreign bond purchases! Stock exchange targeting! Capital stock nationalisation using the profits of quantitative easing! — while we're stuck with boring old open market policy, where a chart from eight months ago is still accurate.

Continuing the theme of literally illustrating metaphors, this is a picture of some spices. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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.