Inside Miliband's "one nation" project

The Labour leader's chief strategist Stewart Wood on the inspiration he takes from Thatcher and the five principles behind "one nation".

I've just returned from Queen Mary, University of London, where some of Labour's brightest minds, including Jon Cruddas, Jonathan Rutherford and Maurice Glasman, are meeting for a one day conference on "The Politics of One Nation Labour" (the event is being live blogged by Labour List). 

Stewart Wood, Ed Miliband's consigliere, who sits in the shadow cabinet as minister without portfolio, opened proceedings and drew laughter when he revealed that he'd just bought a copy of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom (a favourite text of Margaret Thatcher's). One of the main reasons he entered politics, he said, was Thatcher and her belief that "ideas could be transformational". As Miliband has hinted in his statements since her death, he and his allies take inspiration from how she broke with the political and economic consensus of the time and established a new governing philosophy (although one might pause to note the irony of a Thatcher-esque project that describes itself as "one nation"). 

Wood remarked that Thatcher's achievement lay in spotting "the exhaustion of an old settlement", adding that the public would reward those who did the same today. Miliband's one nation approach, he said, was a "profound challenge" to the consensus that took root in 1979. 

He went on to outline the five main principles behind "one nation" Labour:

1. A different kind of economy

2. A determination to tackle inequality

3. An emphasis on responsibility (at the top and the bottom)

4. Protecting the elements of our common life

5. Challenging the ethics of neoliberalism

What does all this mean for policy? Today, Wood emphasised what he calls a "supply side revolution from the left": reforming the banking system so that it supports, rather than hinders, long-term growth and an active industrial policy; working with employers to build technical education and "filling out the middle" of our "hourglass economy" by expanding use of the living wage. Without uttering the dread word "predistribution", he spoke of building an economy in which greater equality is "baked in", not "bolted on afterwards". Rather than merely ameliorating inequalities through the tax and benefits system (although Wood emphasised that redistribution would remain an important part of the social democratic arsenal), the state should act to ensure that they do not arise in the first place.

On social security, he spoke, as other Labour figures have done, of strengthening the contributory principle, so that there is a clearer relationship between what people put in and what they get out. The hope is that this would revive public confidence in the welfare state and Wood also pointed out that contributory and universal systems had proved less vulnerable to cuts than those based on means-testing. As I noted in my recent piece on why Labour must defend universal pensioner benefits, history shows that a narrower welfare state soon becomes a shallower one as the politically powerful middle classes lose any stake in the system and the poor are stigmatised as "dependent". The "paradox of redistribution", as social scientists call it, is that provision for some depends on provision for all.

Wood concluded by discussing the three main challenges facing one nation Labour: the fiscal constraints imposed by a lack of growth; building new institutions and restoring faith in politics. The biggest obstacle to change, he said, was not hostility to Labour but the belief that politicians were "all the same" and that "none of you can change anything". He observed that while the right "thrives on the pessimism that nothing can change", the left is "starved of oxygen". The greatest challenge for Labour, then, is to attack the coalition's failures while simultaneously persuading voters that they were far from inevitable. 

Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall on November 5, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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