Will the Sparks light up SME lending?

Ed Miliband is a man with a plan.

George reports that Ed Miliband is to take inspiration from the German Sparkassen system, and establish a new network of regional banks in the UK.

Miliband, and his shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, are positing the new banks—apparently to be anglicised as "Sparks"—as a solution to Britain's lending crisis. The idea is that by devolving state-supported lending to SMEs down to the regional level, the banks may be able to use their local knowledge to get more return on their investment—helping the business with strong links to the local community and a record of job creation, rather than just the one which has the healthiest profit/loss ratio.

The move is supported by many. David Green, the director of the Civitas think-tank, says that, "the Sparkassen were a major factor in helping Germany bounce back from the recession so much more quickly than the UK, which has been held back by the coalition Government's miserable failure to learn the most obvious lessons from overseas."

But the problem with Britain's SME lending is more complex than just greedy bankers. The ever-perceptive Dan Davies sums it up in just a few tweets:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The meme of "greedy bankers not lending to embattled small businesses" is a strong one, but as Davies says, there are far more structural problems when it comes to that market. Basicall

What we should really be looking for in the Sparks, then, is whether they can overcome those problems. They clearly can't fix our housing market, and if defaulting on a business loan locks you out of the housing market forever then risk aversion on the part of the business owners is understandable. At the same time, to remove that barrier—to let SMEs take out loans which don't require personal guarantees—is inviting fraud.

The big hope for the Sparks is that they will be able to crack down on fraud in other ways. If their regional basis really does render them better-placed to work out whether a particular application is fraudulent than commercial banks, then they could stand a chance of making un-guaranteed loans profitable. Alternatively, of course, the government could decide that, in a recession, the profitability of the banks is no longer an issue. The Sparks could be run at a loss, deliberately making riskier loans than is commercially sensible, until growth picks up.

That wouldn't work as a stated policy, because the minute it was announced that they would be deliberately amenable to fraud, fraud would shoot up. But if Labour were more interested in fixing the economy than getting credit for fixing the economy, it could be a smart way to go.

A German Sparkasse. 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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.