Miliband's Wonga tax is another trap for the Tories

Should Cameron's party oppose the levy, Labour will accuse it of again siding with predatory companies against struggling consumers.

After doing battle with the energy companies, Ed Miliband is taking on Wonga and co. The Labour leader will announce today that his party would impose a new levy on the profits of payday loan companies (call it the "Wonga tax") and use the money raised to double the public funds (currently £13m) available to credit unions and other low-cost lenders. The plan was first mooted in August shortly after Justin Welby vowed to put Wonga "out of existence" by supporting non-profit lenders, which charge a maximum interest rate of 26%. Labour says that it is currently "consulting on the rate and details of our addition to the levy" but I'm told by a party source that the rate is likely to be around 10%. 

Miliband will also announce that Stella Creasy, who was overlooked in the shadow cabinet reshuffle, will be given "special responsibility" for leading the party's campaign against abuses by payday lenders. On a visit to Peckham today with Creasy, last week appointed as shadow minister for competition and consumer affairs, he will visit the office of a credit union and meet some of those who have suffered at the hands of high-cost lenders. He will say:

The cost of living crisis afflicting millions of Britain’s families is so bad that it is creating a personal debt crisis too. The prices families have to pay keep on rising faster and faster than the wages they are paid. And, as a result, the market in payday lending has doubled in just four years. Almost a third of the payday loans taken out in Britain at the moment are to cover the cost of people’s gas and electricity bills.

For too many families the end of the month is now their own personal credit crunch. A One Nation Labour Government would deal with the causes of the cost of living crisis. But it would also act to help prevent people falling into unpayable debt with radical reform of the payday lending market. We would cap the cost of credit, halt the spread of payday lenders on our high streets and force them to fund the credit unions that can offer a real alternative for people in desperate need.

We must protect the most vulnerable people in our society from the worst of exploitation by payday lenders. And it is right that the companies that benefit from people's financial plight, accept their responsibilities to help ensure affordable credit is available.

As well as good policy, the announcement is also smart politics. Following his call for an energy price freeze, the Labour leader has again put himself on the side of consumers against predatory companies and set a trap for the Tories. Should they oppose the levy (as will be their instinct), Miliband will accuse Cameron's party of again "standing up for the wrong people" and defending the interests of its donors rather than those of the public. As Labour said last night: "this Tory-led Government stands up only up only for a privileged few and, just as it does nothing to stop energy firms overcharging families, drags its feet over uncontroversial reforms of a poorly regulated industry and is doing little of significance to boost low-cost alternatives to payday lending."

While some Tories are sympathetic to calls for action against payday lenders, others argue that state intervention will raise the cost of borrowing for consumers and push them into the arms of unregulated loan sharks. Labour has already pledged to impose a cap on the rates lenders can charge but despite having supported amendments on this issue in the Lords (after pressure from the opposition and others), the government has yet to act. Asked by Labour MP Paul Blomfield at PMQs yesterday whether he would introduce "tough regulation of payday lenders", Cameron replied: "We are still considering the issue of a cap, and I do not think we should rule it out, although we must bear in mind what has been established in other countries, and by our own research, about whether a cap would prove effective."

The PM will likely take a similar view of Miliband's Wonga tax. But having so badly misjudged their response to his proposed energy price freeze, the Tories would be wise to avoid rushing to oppose it. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.