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Labour rediscovers an appetite for mutuality, co-operatives and a People's Bank

A branch of the Northern Rock Bank on Northumb...

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Mutuality is back on the political agenda - at least that is what my initial reading of Labour's election manifesto suggests could happen if they win the election. Of course, whether it is noticed depends on how the other parties respond to this theme. Most likely it will be submerged by the battles over issues that are more likely to obsess the mainstream media like tax cuts, health, education, crime and immigration.
There has already been some media comment over the suggestion - and it is only that - that Northern Rock could be returned to its former mutual status when the government divests itself of the failed bank:
"As one option for the disposal of Northern Rock, we will encourage a mutual solution, while ensuring that the sale generates the maximum value for money for the taxpayer", says the party's manifesto.
As I have written before, Labour has a natural affinity with mutuality through its long association with the co-operative movement so these proposals sit very comfortably with them. In the same section as its comments on the possible future ownership of Northern Rock, it also praises building societies although only rather limply promises to "consult on measures to help strengthen the sector".
Elsewhere, this enthusiasm for mutuality is also reflected in pledges to make it easier to create more employee-owned and trust-owned businesses and a commitment to turn British Waterways into a mutually owned co-operative. In a similar vein, there is also a bold, some would say long overdue, proposal "to transform the Post Office into a People's Bank offering a full range of competitive, affordable products. This will help sustain the network and boost competition in banking". The reference to sustaining the network will raise a few angry eyebrows in rural areas where people will wonder why this wasn't on the government's agenda before the widespread closures of rural post offices took effect in recent years.
Elsewhere in the manifesto, there is very little new on financial regulation. Labour set out its stall in this area some time ago with its re-affirmation of the tripartite system and the proposal to set up a Council for Financial Stability, all of which is in the manifesto. Labour is also sticking to its guns over the need for international co-operation in creating new rules for tougher capital requirements and the introduction of levies on banks. It does make a distinction between the volume of capital banks might be required to hold, which it says it will unilaterally increase, and the quality of capital they should hold which it says is a matter for international agreement. It sounds like a recipe for confusion and indecision to me.
One area of possible regulatory confusion the manifesto does clear up, however, is over consumer credit. This, Labour pledges, will be handed to the Financial Services Authority, ending the anomaly of unsecured lending sitting with the Office of Fair Trading under the Consumer Credit Act 1974.
Of course, the election will rightly be fought on bigger issues than these but it is always useful to look beyond the headlines and into the depths of the manifestoes to see what the election outcome might mean for the markets we operate in. After all, it is these detailed policy areas that tend to form the bulk the legislative programme of an incoming government.
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