Time to stand up

Being nice to global corporations doesn't work.

The decisive political development of the last 30 years was the shift to a financialised and globalised capitalism. It was given a huge nudge by the 1980s "big bang" but this merely exacerbated a trend. Capital went global while democracy stayed rigidly national. Ever since the game for the left has been up. In the words of Zygmunt Bauman, we have power without politics and politics without power.

We were reminded of this on Tuesday when HSBC announced to the world that they would, after all, be keeping their company HQ in London, at least until 2015. It’s a trick this particular bank pulls again and again – along with a host of other global corporates.  It’s a message that says if you don’t regulate us as lightly as possible or tax us as minimally as possible then we will go to somewhere that does. Its called blackmail and it works. Governments fear losing even minimal corporate tax payments and duly oblige.  The tax base gets thinner and the capacity of companies to wreck the economy, because of the light touch regulations they demand, grows. Eventually the economy crashes as it did in 2008 and nothing happens to the banks who once again see their pay and rewards rocket while everyone else pays the tab. I’m so glad you're staying HSBC so we can continue to bail you out. 
 
So what to do? Well, lots. First we could tell them to get lost and go and re-locate to their neoliberal nirvana. Some might. But look at HSBC, a basket case of a once proud banking institution that is now mired in a money laundering scandal. But would they go? HSBC is run by real people with real lives. They have been based on London for over 25 years. That is people with families, roots and ties. London is a fantastic place to live and work. Would many want to swap that?
 
We could say instead that these are the rules of a civilised society and we expect you to honour them. We could champion the good companies – like GSK who, on this issue, have been very clear: they will not play the blackmail game and will pay all the taxes they are asked to pay (well done Andrew Witty, the company CEO).
 
We could look at the German system which anchors companies in places and to people through sunken costs that mean you cant just do a moonlight flit and sail off to a low tax, minimal regulation oasis without a hefty bill. And why don’t we suggest, starting in Europe, that there is a minimum level of corporation tax all companies have to pay to end the race to the bottom. The same with tax havens.  And why not introduce a financial transaction tax, which means no finance sector company can ever escape paying their fair share.
 
Companies like HSBC are just playground bullies. Being nice to them doesn’t work. They will still nick our dinner money. We have to stand up to them. Progress is the chase and pursuit of irresponsible capitalism to the furthest quarters of the globe – to pin it down, regulate it and make it safe for people and the planet. That is a big daunting task I know – but its either that or being bullied.
 
PS The government have announced the end of a short-lived ministerial committee set up to tackle long term health issues like obesity, alcohol abuse and growing health inequalities. It was a good idea but ironically wasn’t given any time. Labour and others should demand that it be reinstated or promise to do so themselves. This switch from public services going "upstream" to deal with causes and not just symptoms is crucial to the reform of the state. It is an idea being championed by the brilliant Anna Coote over at the New Economics Foundation. Why spend loads of money fishing someone out of a downstream river when you could have saved money and a life live by stopping them falling in in the first place? Only on this issue it would mean taking on the fast food and alcohol industries. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised long termism was given such short shift. 
HSBC is always threatening to up sticks and leave the UK (Photo: Getty Images)

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

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The Land Registry sale puts a quick buck before common sense

Without a publicly-owned Land Registry, property scandals would be much harder to uncover.

Britain’s family silver is all but gone. Sale after sale since the 1970s has stripped the cupboards bare: our only assets remaining are those either deemed to be worth next to nothing, or significantly contribute to the Treasury’s coffers.

A perfect example of the latter is the Land Registry, which ensures we’re able to seamlessly buy and sell property.

This week we learned that London’s St Georges Wharf tower is both underoccupied and largely owned offshore  - an embodiment of the UK’s current housing crisis. Without a publicly-owned Land Registry, this sort of scandal would be much harder to uncover.

On top of its vital public function, it makes the Treasury money: a not-insignificant £36.7m profit in 2014/15.

And yet the government is trying to push through the sale of this valuable asset, closing a consultation on its proposal this week.

As recently as 2014 its sale was blocked by then business secretary Vince Cable. But this time Sajid Javid’s support for private markets means any opposition must come from elsewhere.

And luckily it has: a petition has gathered over 300,000 signatures online and a number of organisations have come out publically against the sale. Voices from the Competition and Markets Authority to the Law Society, as well as unions, We Own It, and my organisation the New Economics Foundation are all united.

What’s united us? A strong and clear case that the sale of the Land Registry makes no sense.

It makes a steady profit and has large cash reserves. It has a dedicated workforce that are modernising the organisation and becoming more efficient, cutting fees by 50 per cent while still delivering a healthy profit. It’s already made efforts to make more data publically available and digitize the physical titles.

Selling it would make a quick buck. But our latest report for We Own It showed that the government would be losing money in just 25 years, based on professional valuations and analysis of past profitability.

And this privatisation is different to past ones, such as British Airways or Telecoms giants BT and Cable and Wireless. Using the Land Registry is not like using a normal service: you can’t choose which Land Registry to use, you use the one and only and pay the list price every time that any title to a property is transacted.

So the Land Registry is a natural monopoly and, as goes the Competition and Market Authority’s main argument, these kinds of services should be publically owned. Handing a monopoly over to a private company in search of profit risks harming consumers – the new owners may simply charge a higher price for the service, or in this case put the data, the Land Registry’s most valuable asset, behind a paywall.

The Law Society says that the Land Registry plays a central role in ensuring property rights in England and Wales, and so we need to ensure that it maintains its integrity and is free from any conflict of interest.

Recent surveys have shown that levels of satisfaction with the service are extremely high. But many of the professional bodies representing those who rely on it, such as the Law Society and estate agents, are extremely sceptical as to whether this trust could be maintained if the institution is sold off.

A sale would be symbolic of the ideological nature of the proposal. Looked at from every angle the sale makes no sense – unless you believe that the state shouldn’t own anything. Seen through this prism and the eyes of those in the Treasury, all the Land Registry amounts to is £1bn that could be used to help close the £72bn deficit before the next election.

In reality it’s worth so much more. It should stay free, open and publically owned.

Duncan McCann is a researcher at the New Economics Foundation