Balls's job guarantee is a left-wing idea wrapped in right-wing rhetoric

Labour's 'tough' message risks encouraging the belief that benefit claimants seek to avoid work.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls announced plans today for a compulsory jobs guarantee for the long-term unemployed to be funded by reducing tax relief on pension contributions for those earning over £150,000.

Balls details the policy in an article written for PoliticsHome. In the piece he blasts the coalition for labelling "people who want to work" as 'scroungers'; he describes their rhetoric as "divisive, nasty and misleading". But the subtext of much of his own article is also that benefit claimants are a drain on public money, and that their claims are often fraudulent, as shown by the headings of his "three tests" for welfare reform: firstly, "it must pay more to be in work than live on benefits", secondly "we must get tough on the scourge of long-term unemployment by matching rights with responsibilities", and thirdly any welfare reform "must be fair to those who genuinely want to work." Does this language not sound familiar?

Between the headings, Balls makes the nuanced - though rather obvious - point that "the vast majority" of Job Seeker's Allowance claimants "desperately want to find a job". But elsewhere in the piece, the shadow chancellor says that Labour are proposing welfare reform on the grounds that "we won't get the costs of welfare down if adults who can work are languishing on the dole for year".

So is Labour's proposal doing the long-term workless a favour, or is it threatening them? And is Labour a group of reformers masquerading as moderates, or a populist centre party that wants to appear to sympathise with the poor? The policy would suggest the former, the rhetoric the latter.

The latest YouGov poll puts Labour on 43 per cent, compared to 32 per cent for the Conservatives. With the collapse in support for the Lib Dems from left-leaning voters and widespread public anger about cuts and inequality, Labour has the chance to present a real alternative to the coalition's austerity agenda. But in order to win votes it must be seen to be consistent and strong in its message, or it risks appearing ridiculous, as we saw when Ed Milliband refused to get off the fence on union walk-outs in 2011.

In order to harness dissatisfaction, Labour needs to walk the walk, but it also needs to talk the talk. Go on, say it Eds – 'I am left-wing'.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said that Labour would match "rights with responsibilities". Photograph: Getty Images.
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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation