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Turn anger over RBS bonus into action

The palpable anger over the £963,000 bonus in shares awarded to state-owned Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Stephen Hester has to turn into some direct political and industrial action if society is to see an end to this kind of obscenity.

Hester is effectively a public servant, as 81% of the shares are owned by the state following a bail-out of the bank by the previous New Labour government. Since he took over as CEO in November 2008, RBS has sacked 33,000 staff.

The aim, as always with a capitalist concern, was to shed staff in a bid to return the bank to profitability. This Hester has done with the blessing of both the ConDem coalition and the Brown government that preceded it.

The mistake some people have made is to think that because the state owns a bank or two they would be run along different lines, perhaps more ethically or fairly. But the state nationalised the banks to prevent a collapse of the entire financial system – not to set up an alternative banking network.

The banks were allowed, nay encouraged, to continue along their usual profit-driven path. Recently-sold Northern Rock, for example, went about repossessing people who were behind with their mortgages and calling in loans while state owned.

As one of hundreds of angry comments on the BBC news website noted: “This is interesting, we own 81% of RBS and still the government and board of this bank show nothing but contempt for the general public and small business. RBS are about to repossess my brothers house for approx the same amount and close his building company putting people out of work and on the dole. Can anyone explain this madness?”

What is “madness” to some is sanity to others who hold the reins of a state that to all intents and purposes is a plaything of economic and financial elites. They call the shots – and not the government. Or as another sharp comment put it: “It's another sign the politicians aren't running the country, or at least not for the people. Their bonus is the cushy job their friends in finance offer them when they quit parliament.”

Robert Peston, the BBC commentator who broke the Northern Rock debacle, says he was “reliably told” that had the government blocked Hester’s bonus, it would have triggered mass resignation from the RBS board and the CEO’s departure. This financial blackmail clearly worked. Only a junior LibDem minister has demanded that Hester rejects the bonus – elsewhere there is silence.

So there you have it – the state is an extended arm of business. That has been the case since the modern state was formed in the early 19th century to facilitate the development of capitalism in Britain. For a period, this role was disguised by consensus politics, a welfare state, full employment and trade union rights.

The globalisation process produced transnational corporations and global financial institutions that more openly wagged the tail of the state. One consequence is that large numbers of people believe that traditional politics is corrupt, unrepresentative, undemocratic and a waste of time.

They are right. The state needs deconstructing and rebuilding with people’s assemblies and the like to create a real, functioning democracy.

Trade union leaders have reacted with outrage at the bonus for Hester, whose basic salary is £1.2 million a year. David Fleming, the Unite national officer, said: "What planet does Stephen Hester and his banking chums live on? Taking almost £1m from taxpayers' pockets as a bonus is utterly disgusting and offensive to every working person across the country.” Paul Kenny, the general secretary of the GMB union, said: "A bonus of nearly a million pounds looks to ordinary people like he has won the lottery – with a ticket they paid for.”

Public sector workers, by contrast, are facing a pay cut as a result of the government’s 1% pay limit (backed by Labour). If the union leaders are to be taken seriously about their desire to remedy gross inequality, they ought to be organising indefinite strikes against the pay limit (and pension cuts) with the aim of bringing down the ConDems. Otherwise it’s all hot air.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
27 January 2012

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