The Pope and Greens can agree that banks have been bad for the common good. Photo: Getty
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The Pope of the poor and the Seven Deadly Sins of banking practice

Whether you choose the religious terminology of sin or the secular language of social harm, it is clear that banks have not been helping the poor but have focused on the wealthy few.

Pope Francis’ description of Europe as "somewhat elderly and haggard" was a gift to both UKIP and headline writers. But the Pontiff had much more to say. For example, he called for a Europe built, “not around the economy, but around the sacred nature of the human person.”

Unusually for a Pope, I didn’t once hear him mention the word sin. Equally surprisingly perhaps, this particular term of transgression was left to the Greens. That’s because on the day Pope Francis made his historic speech to the European Parliament the Greens launched an important website on the "Seven Deadly Sins of Banking". 

The Pope could no doubt write a full sermon on each of these deadly sins: addiction, megalomania, distortion, exploitation, greed, trickery and recklessness. Indeed, some of his wise pronouncements could even have been written with the banks in mind. Pope Francis has called for, “financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone”, and has urged for a, “return to person-centered ethics in the world of finance and economics”.

So what might this financial reform look like? Last week, on the same day as the Pontiff spoke to the European Parliament in Strasbourg I also had a chance to address the whole Parliament. I used the opportunity to highlight the need for decisive structural reform of the banking industry.

I pointed out that the two most important causes of the financial crisis have still not been addressed. Firstly, the need for a clear-cut separation of retail from casino banking activities; secondly, the need to reduce the size of individual banks so that no single financial corporation can threaten the global financial system. Banks are still nowhere near the responsible corporations serving the real economy that we need them to be; they are still too big and too interconnected to fail.

Which brings us back to sin. Using the extensive information in the Green Group's "Seven Deadly Sins of Banking" website, we discover that UK banks are some of the greatest sinners. Or to put it another way, they rank particularly low in what we have termed a "Banking Social Harm Index".

UK banks present high levels of speculative activities; they receive high amounts of implicit subsidies and operate in a high number of offshore entities (tax havens). All of which demonstrates precisely the need for such structural reforms in the banking sector.

For each "Deadly Sin", our website offers atonement, or to put it another way, a solution. These include capping bankers’ salaries, penalising banks with operations in tax havens and limiting the percentage of bank assets financed by borrowing (imposing a leverage ratio). 

The Pope often reminds his audiences that he is a Pope for the poor; that he has a duty, “to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them and to promote them”. Whether you choose the religious terminology of sin or the secular language of social harm it is clear to almost everyone that banks have not been helping the poor but have focused on the wealthy few.

The Pope believes that the ideologies of markets and financial speculation are denying States the ability to provide for the common good. The banking reforms that Greens are pressing for in Europe seek to ensure that finance, and therefore states, are able to work for exactly that: the common good.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.