Miliband takes inspiration from Germany with new regional banks policy

Labour would establish a new network of banks, modelled on the German <i>Sparkassen</i>, with a duty to promote growth in underdeveloped regions.

The "blank sheet of paper" is being filled. Ed Miliband will announce today that a Labour government would establish a new network of regional banks as partners of a British Investment Bank. In his speech at the British Chambers of Commerce conference this morning, he will say: "We do not just need a single investment serving the country. We need a regional banking system serving each and every region of the country. 

"Regional banks with a mission to serve that region and that region alone, not banks that are likely to say no but banks that know your region and your business; not banks that you mistrust, but banks you can come to trust."

The policy, like much of Miliband's political economy, has a distinctly German flavour. Last February, Chuka Umunna visited the country to study the Sparkassen, locally managed banks with a duty to promote growth in economically underdeveloped regions. The shadow business secretary said: 

There is quite a lot we can learn, in particular from the savings banks here, the Sparkassen, which have a much better relationship, if you like, with their businesses, the people here, their banking structure's very local in its nature, the people running those local banks really understand and get to know the businesses, so they're in a good position to assess the risk and provide the support needed to. 

Labour's Small Business Taskforce, which publishes its final report today, has identified the lack of  finance for small and medium sized enterprises as one of the factors restricting growth and innovation. It suggests that a new German-style network of regional banks (dubbed "Sparks") could help promote a more balanced economy.

There are important details to be worked out, most notably where the banks will operate and how they will be capitalised, but this is an encouraging example of Miliband's long-term focus on rebuilding "the foundations" of the economy. 

Ed Miliband walks through Hyde Park after addressing TUC members at the end of a march in protest against the government's austerity measures on October 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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