Delegates walk past a banner outside the Labour conference on September 23, 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's finances are healthier than most think - but dangers remain

The party has reduced its debts from £25m in 2005 to £4.5m but risks to funding have increased. 

Labour's decision to end its commercial relationship with the Co-operative Bank has come as no surprise to anyone in the party. The bank, which is now 70 per cent owned by US investors, was already reviewing the link as part of its new "apolitical" approach and, for Labour, there is an understandable interest in no longer being directly associated with the scandal-ridden instiution. The £1.2m loan that the party currently has with the Co-op will be transferred to the Unity Trust Bank, jointly owned by a coalition of trade unions and the Co-op itself (although it is currently attempting to sell its 27 per cent stake). 

The move has inevitably led to comment on the wider state of Labour's finances. ConservativeHome's Mark Wallace writes: "All of this is bad news for Ed Miliband’s election machine. True to their national record, the Labour party itself is laden with debt, and its fund-raising attempts have brought in less money than they hoped." Yet while Labour is far from flush with cash, its financial situation is healthier than generally thought. After reaching the dangerously high level of £25m in 2005 (putting it close to bankruptcy), its debts have been reduced to £4.5m and the party is on track to eliminate the blackhole entirely by 2016. In 2012, it ran a surplus (for the sixth successive year) of £2.8m and raised £12.03m to the Tories' £13.8m. 

But there are several black clouds on the horizon. The first is the probability that the separate Co-operative Group will end most or all of its funding to Labour having recently consulted the public on whether it was appropriate for it to continue to donate to a political party. In 2012, it donated £810,000 to Labour (the typical annual amount), including £563,000 to the affiliated Co-operative party (of which 32 Labour MPs are members) and £50,000 to Ed Balls's office. 

The second is the impact of Ed Miliband's party reforms. To date, his decision to require all trade union members to opt into donating to Labour, has prompted Unite and the GMB to reduce their funding by £2.55m. Both unions have already made it clear that some of this shortfall will be reduced through one-off donations but the party is still likely to suffer a net financial loss. 

The third is the likelihood of the party winning the next general election. As one source recently pointed out to me, this would mean the loss of all of the £6.4m Labour currently receives in "short money", the state funding made available to assist opposition parties with their costs (such as travel expenses and running the leader's office). "A lot of people know their jobs are on the line if we win," he said. 

With Labour's general election spending already constrained by its debt reduction target, expect the party to step up its fundraising efforts over the next year in a bid to ensure a fair fight with the Tories. 

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