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.

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.