Labour must take on the bankers

In the worst catastrophe since the late 1920s, Brown and Darling have shown themselves to be cowardl

You would have been hard-pressed to hear the words "Northern Rock" at last year's Labour conference in Bournemouth. It was the financial crisis which dared not speak its name. Yet the effort by Gordon Brown to pretend that the first mass run on a British bank since the 1860s hadn't happened is a startling metaphor for the disaster that has hit global banking and the Labour Party ever since.

Polling shows that the Northern Rock scandal - which erupted a year ago - was a decisive turning point in Brown's reputation for competence and new Labour's popularity. Instead of acting resolutely, the Prime Minister became hung up on the idea that to nationalise or force the high-street banks into a rescue of their competitor would be seen as a return to socialism. So a private-sector solution had to be found.

The contrast with the behaviour of a right-wing Republican administration in Washington could not be greater. As pressure mounted on each financial institution, starting with the investment house Bear Stearns and culminating in the near collapse of the mortgage intermediaries Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Americans showed that there is no shame in "conservatorship", a euphemism for nationalisation.

At a stroke, $20bn worth (£11.2bn) of shareholders' property was expropriated for the greater good of the housing market and the country. The operation to rescue Fannie and Freddie was conducted with military efficiency by the US treasury secretary, Hank Paulson. Even this has proved insufficient to stop the rot. The dramatic events of last weekend saw America's oldest investment bank, Lehman Brothers, placed in bankruptcy, Merrill Lynch, the most famous brand in US stockbroking and investment banking, sold off to Bank of America for a song, and the world's biggest insurer, AIG, passing around the begging bowl.

These are epoch-making events, but at no time throughout this catastrophe, the worst since the late 1920s, has the Prime Minister or the Chancellor shown himself brave enough to take on the City.

Labour's cultivation of banking and business served it well for its first ten years in office when the economy boomed, helping to provide the revenues to fund the rise in public spending on health and education. But its closeness to business and fear of alienating the greedy financiers who had helped deliver prosperity caused Labour's leadership to run scared when the economy went wrong.

Despite the mess that the banking industry has made of running its own affairs, top bankers, including Sir Fred Goodwin of Royal Bank of Scotland, have still been welcome in Downing Street. Even at the height of the oil price in July - when it hit $147 a barrel on international markets - Sam Laidlaw and Roger Carr, the chieftains at Centrica, were to be seen quietly exiting No 10.

The cultivation of the bankers, private equity princelings and power bosses has proved a poisoned chalice. It has limited Labour's room for manoeuvre on the banking and energy crises. Worse, politically, it has meant that Gordon Brown's Labour has found it all but impossible to tap into the deep well of public dissatisfaction about the mortgage famine and soaring utility bills.

Labour has in fact taken a number of significant measures, but it has been unwilling to trumpet them. The Northern Rock rescue, instead of being portrayed as a heroic step designed to save depositors and shore up the financial system, was conducted as if it were a national disgrace.

That Labour helped put in place the "special liquidity scheme", which provided mortgage lenders with access to at least £50bn, has barely been recognised. And Alistair Darling's introduction of a break on stamp duty at the bottom end of the market was greeted as a political mistake. A cleverly designed energy package - with a focus on conservation and the elderly - was viewed with opprobrium because is was not the campaigned-for "windfall tax". Yet such taxes are near impossible to implement and can have bizarre consequences. The £4.5bn charge which Labour directed at the utilities in 1997 led to a mass exodus of American investors. Instead, Labour demanded that the power companies do their bit to help the least well-off. In effect, the government produced funding for the energy package while avoiding the uncertainties of a windfall tax.

The latest row has No 10 at loggerheads with an obdurate Bank of England, which does not approve of bailing out failing banks. The reality is that economic emergencies demand urgent action, and Brown and Darling should not hesitate to extend and develop the special liquidity facility.

Downing Street has itself to blame for the current burst of leadership uncertainty. Instead of leading from the front, it has been far too timid towards the discredited banks and markets.

Alex Brummer is City editor of the Daily Mail

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party