Ed Miliband's speech on 'one-nation banking'

Ed Miliband, 03/02/2012

Category: Labour Politics (General)

This has been a turbulent week for the British banking industry.

On Sunday, Stephen Hester gave back his bonus, and on Tuesday, the forfeiture committee revoked Fred Goodwin’s knighthood.

But these moments do really not change anything in themselves.

This is about more than one man, one bonus, or one knighthood.

These are symbols – and symptoms - of public discontent with a system that is not working as it should.

For our economy.

And for our society.

That is why these moments do not and should not signal the end of the debate.

Because, three years on from the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the debate is really only just beginning.

We need a banking system that serves a more responsible capitalism, working for the majority of people and enabling us to pay our way in the world.

Everyone can agree that the kind of tug-of-war we have seen in the past fortnight over bonuses is bad for the reputation of the banking sector.
Nobody in this country - neither the banks’ most staunch defenders nor their most outspoken critics - believe that a public argument between executives, shareholders, politicians and the public is the best way for any sector to set pay.

London is one of the world’s great financial centres and Britain’s banking sector is one of our most important employers.

It is in all our interests to find a better way forward.

But if things carry on as they are, I believe the same row over pay and bonuses will erupt again.

So how do we make sure that that does not happen?

We need to learn the most important lesson of the week: we cannot have a banking sector so divorced from the rest of the economy and the rest of society.

We succeed or fail together.

It is not about the politics of envy.

It is about a culture of responsibility.

We need what you might call 'one nation banking'.

We need banks that serve the real economy.

We need banking serving every region, every sector, every business, every family in this country.

And we need banks run in a way that people believe are consistent with their values – the values of Britain.

It is something I have been talking about for months: responsibility - from the benefits office to the boardroom.

But to understand how we get there, we must understand how we got here.

On almost any measure you choose, banking and finance is going through exceptional times.

Everywhere you look, pillars of the conventional wisdom which have stood solidly for thirty-odd years are crashing to the ground.

Until 2007, it was hard to imagine that: light touch financial regulation would be so thoroughly discredited; financial instruments designed to make each bank safer would make the banking system as a whole riskier; we would be facing interest rates lower than we have seen for decades without lending rising as a result; bank bonuses could be in the billions even as banks’ share price fell; all the banks in this country would be backed by an implicit government guarantee; and two of the biggest would be largely owned by the Government.

We all know this has happened because something has gone deeply wrong.

My party has accepted responsibility, along with governments round the world, for not doing more to prevent the crisis with regulation.

We now must ask questions about the future of banking which have not been asked for a generation.

The banking sector can choose either to continue down the path which led us to big bonuses, busts, and bailouts.

Or it can take a different path.

Today, I want to talk about that different path.

Banking has to change.

Throughout most of our parents and grandparents’ lives, banking was not prone to wild swings in value.

It directed lending towards businesses and entrepreneurs efficiently and soberly.

And the idea of a vote in the House of Commons to affect the pay of an individual banker would have been as outlandish as the idea of a vote to censure the pay of an individual doctor or lawyer.

Thirty years ago, the word ‘banker’ was often used as a compliment to suggest solidity and reassurance.

Since then, however, the sector morphed from something our parents and grandparents would have recognized into something else, with the rise and increasing dominance of investment banks.

We can't turn back the clock.

This mustn’t be about recreating a bygone era of banking.

But if the rules and norms of banking have changed before, they can change again.

And they must change.

After the crisis and the bailout, we are left in a situation which nobody would have wanted.

Where thanks to the crisis, ten per cent of this country’s tax receipts fell away between 2007 and 2008 alone.

Banks have accepted they bear the burden of responsibility for helping to cause the crisis.

The consequences of their reckless irresponsibility in that era are felt every time a library closes.

Every time a school can’t afford a new book.

And every time a policeman or policewoman is taken off the beat.

Those consequences are being felt by everyone in society.

The banking sector needs to understand this.

People who did not cause the financial crisis are paying the price.

And many feel that those who did cause the financial crisis are not.

When most people see their incomes stagnate, their bills go up, their public services cut, and their jobs increasingly become insecure, pay and bonuses at banks seem to carry on as if the crisis never happened.

The public services we rely on to educate our kids, look after us when we are ill, or help us afford a lawyer if we’re in trouble, cannot go back to normal any time soon.

So when people see the pay of those who caused the crisis continuing to be so abnormal, they are understandably angry.

This is a call for banking to recognise that continuing on its current path will lead to further isolation from society, greater public anger, more years in which each payday is a newspaper headline.

This is a call on banking to recognise that it should take the path of change.

To recognise that it is not isolated from the economy or society.

To recognise that we succeed or fail together.

We have a proud history of banking in this country.

Banking has performed an invaluable service to the economy from Midland Bank's role restructuring the cotton industry in the 1930s, to Barclays' role in financing high tech start-ups in Cambridge in the seventies and eighties,

And since the crisis, we have seen some welcome steps.

Notably, the Independent Banking Commission’s recommendations about the ring fencing of retail and investment banking.

And more recently, the way HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds, RBS and Standard Chartered have put up £2.5 billion for a business growth fund focused on British firms.

But there is still a long way to go before we achieve one nation banking.

Public discontent is, if anything, on the rise - as the long lasting impact of the crisis in living standards becomes clear.

For all the reform of the way bonuses are paid, they remain on a scale beyond the imagination of the vast majority of the population.

Although the Government has welcomed the Vickers proposals, their implementation remains a distant prospect.

And most importantly, business frustration with the banks they rely on is as high as ever.

Still, too often, they see the bank, not as a partner in a shared project, but as a problem to be overcome.

I saw this only on Monday in Scotland when a wind turbine manufacturer complained that while he had employed 20 people in his factory it could have been 30 if only he had got the loan he needed from a leading British bank.

Similar stories can be heard from thousands of other businesses around the country.

Banks must not be isolated from the rest of the economy.

Banks must lend to small businesses so we can get the growth and jobs we need for the future.

That is how Britain will compete in the world.

As things stand, that is still not happening enough.

Lending was down £10.8 billion last year.

There are two reasons why not enough capital currently reaches the small and medium sized enterprises in this country which are crying out for it.

The first is that it’s always hardest to get credit when the economy is in a downturn, even though that’s when small and medium-sized firms need finance the most.

And the second is that it is cheaper for banks to lend to big companies than small ones. Particularly when credit is already being rationed, lending to small firms is often deemed not worthwhile for banks.

The market on its own does not work for small businesses.

All the most successful economies around the world recognise this: from Asian capitalist states like Singapore, through active industrial states like Germany, to supposedly free market states like the USA.

And they make sure that the state helps finance to reach the small and medium sized enterprises which need it.

This isn't about picking winners.

It is about the state getting the market moving, like our most successful competitors have been doing since the fifties.

It’s no coincidence that in Britain we haven’t done as much to develop a Mittelstand like Germany.

Or fast-growing young companies like Apple and Intel - both of which got growth funding from the US government’s Small Business Investment Company programme.

When it comes to competing internationally, our small and medium sized companies are fighting with one hand tied behind their back.

One nation banking means the private sector and the state need to work together in partnership to get the system working for small business.

It means we will need a much more diverse and competitive banking system which is more rooted in our communities.

And it means looking at the case for a British Investment Bank which would provide government backing for entrepreneurs when the market fails.

How we achieve these goals is at the core of our business policy review.

But one nation banking is not just about banks serving the economy.
It also means that banks cannot be isolated from the rest of society either.
They cannot expect their decisions to be immune from public debate.
There will always be some who see public criticism of private decisions, like excessive bonus payments, as illegitimate.
It is an argument I want to tackle head-on.

I believe it is right to address these issues.

Firstly, for economic reasons.

The economy relies on banks to lend to small businesses.

If banks show greater restraint on pay, there will be more money left over for them to lend to businesses.

This is a point forcibly made by the Governor of the Bank of England.

And in the aftermath of a crisis worsened by excessive leverage, if they show restraint on pay, there will be more money left over too for them to repair their balance sheets.

The second reason is because banks have been taking one-way bets which have affected us all as taxpayers.

Banks which were too big to fail were able to take positions in the knowledge that if they profited they could keep the gains, but if they didn’t, the taxpayer would absorb the losses.

I believe in rewards for entrepreneurs and wealth creators.

Exceptional rewards for exceptional performance.

But even banks in this country which are not publicly owned still enjoy an implicit taxpayer guarantee whose value is estimated as at least £10 billion.

That means that many of the bets they make are one-way bets, backed by an implicit taxpayer-funded safety net.

Thirdly, we need change is because banks have a responsibility to society.

Because at the core of one nation banking is the idea that as a country, we succeed or fail together.

We are not isolated individuals, and however affluent we are, whatever the world we inhabit, we owe responsibilities to each other.

So what does that mean in practice?

What are the steps that banks need to take if they to reflect better the values of the British people - the values of their customers.

It starts with transparency.

That means that banks should publish the details of all their large bonuses.

Pay packages at the top should be simpler, so that we can easily understand who is paid what, and shareholders can hold them to account more easily.

We have called on the Government to implement rules we legislated for to make banks reveal how many employees are earning over one million pounds, so that shareholders can hold them to account.

It is absurd for David Cameron to claim this simple effective measure is too onerous for banks and will make British banks uncompetitive.

It is the very least the public has a right to expect and demand.

The next priority is to improve accountability at the top.

That means accountability to employees so that companies put some of their ordinary workers – maybe a teller normally at high street bank window - on the committee which sets executives’ top pay.

If you can’t look a member of your own staff in the eye when you receive a huge bonus, you should not get it.

We need to simplify the current rules on pay packages so that say that executives get just one salary and just one bonus.

When banks are majority owned by the taxpayer, the Government must exercise some shareholder oversight on top pay.

All I ask is that the Government should practice what it preaches to other shareholders and take some responsibility for the pay and bonuses of publicly-owned banks.

But – after transparency and accountability – must come the recognition that executives have a responsibility to wider society.

Of course, there is an international market in banking. But there is also a national imperative: that everybody, from top to bottom, reflects our values of responsibility.

The kind of responsibility shown by the chairman of RBS, Sir Philip Hampton, who recognised that taking his bonus at a time when families are feeling the pinch was wrong.

The kind of responsibility which others in the banking sector could learn from manufacturing in this country: when the crisis hit, managers took pay cuts to save jobs and retain talent for the long-term.

Responsibility means ending the culture of excessive bonuses.

This bonus culture has ultimately been corrosive.

It has enriched individual bankers, but weakened the banking sector as a whole by encouraging a form of risk which crossed the line into sheer recklessness.

Exceptional rewards for exceptional performance means million pound bonuses should not be handed out to people for just doing their job.

It means that performance-related pay should be related to your performance.

It should be earned, not expected.

A reward for exceeding expectations, not meeting them.

I am not talking about the couple of thousand of pounds that employees, including bank tellers, might receive.

I am talking about the couple of millions of pounds which too many people seem to receive as a rule, not as an exception.

The first step towards tackling this problem is recognising it.

Some will argue that the best remedy is the discipline of the free market.

But this argument was proven wrong the day the sector collapsed and had to be rescued by the taxpayer.

Anyone who looks at recent history will find it hard to believe that the discipline of the market will prevent runaway bonuses.

The answer is to change the rules and change the culture.

That is what the House of Commons will debate on Tuesday.

We will say that that too many are getting bonuses which are too big, too often.

All companies must show responsibility, but banks have a particular responsibility because they are either directly or indirectly supported by the taxpayer.

We will give MPs the chance to vote on having another bank bonus tax to get 100,000 of our young people back to work.

But we will also ask MPs to vote on ending a bonus culture based on one-way bets rather than genuine reward for exceptional performance.

It will not be legislation and it will not be binding.

But it will be another step towards hearing the voices of millions of people up and down this country who do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay without seeking any extra reward on top, let alone one worth millions.

Because the alternative to this path of one nation banking is a banking and finance sector which continues on its current path.

The path which it has been on for the last decade or so.

The path which leads to a gradual separation from the rest of society.

We are once again at risk of becoming a country separated economically, geographically, and socially.

We are once again at risk of becoming two nations in this country.

That is not the kind of society in which I want to raise my children.

And it is not the kind of society in which the vast majority of people in this country – including bankers - want to raise theirs.

It is over 160 years since Benjamin Disraeli wrote his novel, Sybil, in which he warned of:

“Two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets.”

For the banking community and the rest of us, that is how it has felt this week.

That is not good for Britain and it is not good for banks.

We need a healthy and successful banking sector, creating jobs and wealth, helping the real economy and connecting to the rest of society.

Responsible capitalism can only be built with a successful banking sector. I believe we can achieve this by changing the rules of the system and the culture of our banks.

That is how we will have a fairer society and an economy which pays its way in the world.

That is how we will create one nation banking.