Two diagnoses, one conclusion

The unions and the Liberal Democrats agree on one thing: new Labour is at the end of the road

There is nothing quite like a Morning Star fringe meeting at the Trades Union Congress to remind you of how far British politics has been transformed in the past two decades. In fact, there is nothing quite like a Morning Star fringe meeting, full stop. Where else in 2008 could you hear three union leaders restate their commitment to replacing capitalism with a socialist society? We may be approaching the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but on Tuesday there was one packed room of the Hilton Metropole in Brighton where communism had never died.

Delegates had gathered to hear Derek Simpson of Unite, Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services Union and Bob Crow of the RMT, who between them represent roughly 2.4 million members of the proletariat. Despite the trade union legislation of the Thatcher years, these men still have the power to crush Gordon Brown's fragile government if they choose to embark on a wave of industrial action over the autumn and winter.

Their analyses of what had gone wrong were identical. The Labour government has alienated the party's core supporters by adopting a neoliberal, pro-business agenda of privatisation, deregulation and low taxation. It is no surprise that it is proving difficult to get the working-class vote out for Labour, they said, when the government has allowed the gap between rich and poor to widen so greatly. In times of growing economic uncertainty, ministers need to demonstrate that the Labour Party is still prepared to look out for those people who stand to lose most from the economic downturn.

A second theory

Scroll forward a week, and the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, will offer a second theory of why things have gone so badly wrong for Gordon Brown.

He, too, believes that the current decline of the Labour Party in power is a sign that a whole form of government has been discredited. But his diagnosis is very different. Clegg will argue at his party's annual conference in Bournemouth that Brown's version of new Labour is the last throw of the social-democratic dice.

He will say that unprecedented spending on health and education under Brown has not yielded the necessary results, leaving users of schools and hospitals feeling frustrated and disempowered. Instead, what is needed is a more personalised approach to state provision, based on a determination to deliver for patients, parents and pupils. For Clegg, a future government must enable public services to respond to people's needs rather than tell them what is good for them.

There could hardly be two approaches more different from each other. In the fragmented and increasingly sectarian landscape of British politics, the only real point of agreement between the unions and the Liberal Democrat leadership is that new Labour has come to the end of the road. What a contrast with the "progressive consensus" of the late 1990s, stretching from the unions to Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats, which was poised to keep the Tories out of power for a generation.

Shift to the right

There is no equivalent consensus today despite Brown's attempts to revive it by offering Ashdown a job last year. Many in the Conservative Party, and even elements of the Labour Party, would agree with Clegg's analysis of the failure of the social-democratic/Fabian model. But that does not amount to a coalition drawing in disparate elements of society.

If there is a Conservative landslide at the next election, it will be a landslide of despair, brought about by the collapse of Labour's core vote and the unenthusiastic drift of Middle England back to its habitual Tory home. David Cameron may talk about "progressive ends by Conservative means", but make no mistake, the centre of gravity in British politics is shifting to the right.

Such is the electoral maths that it will still be difficult for the Conservatives to win an outright majority. If that is the case, Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats are all that stands in the way of a Cameron government. In the event of a hung parliament, would Clegg be able to resist the offer of ministerial posts for his party?

In the next 18 months, the Labour Party will be fighting not just for power, but for its very survival. Oddly, this is something the unions seem to understand better than the leadership of the party. The forerunners of Bob Crow's RMT - the National Union of Railwaymen and the National Union of Seamen - were originally allied to the Liberal Party. The unions created the Labour Party for a purpose and they could break it. Without the financial backing of Unite, the party would collapse tomorrow.

The government should start listening to the unions, not out of fear, but out of necessity. Beyond the revolutionary rhetoric, the motions for a general strike and calls to renationalise the coal industry, the real demands of delegates at the TUC were eminently reasonable: public-sector pay settlements that don't amount to a real-terms cut in income, and a windfall tax on the profits of the energy companies to help the poorest survive the winter. The gruesome reality is that people could start dying if they cannot afford to heat their homes. And if they do, the heart of the Labour Party will be buried with them.

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran

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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