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What Can Occupy Wall Street Learn From London?

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As a UK observer of the Occupy Wall Street I am struck by the parallels with the campaign that emerged in response to the financial crisis in the UK spearheaded by London Citizens. Rather than a street protest it came to focus on an assembly at the Barbican - a theatre in the middle of the City of London, the UK's Wall Street.

The Barbican event opened with the following scenario to explain who London Citizens was and what the event was about. After two female members from the Pentecostal New Testament Church of God sang 'Lean on me' followed by a performance by a street dance troupe called 'Visionz', Sister Una McLeash, a former head teacher of a Catholic girl's school in East London and trustee of London Citizens, introduced the panel of chairs and sought approval from everyone in the room for the authority of chairs to govern the assembly. This consisted of asking the 2000 participants (the total capacity of the Barbican) to say 'Aye' and wave their programmes if they agreed. After Sr Una had finished two young, black comedians named Ashley J and Tee-J bounded to the front of the stage. Watching all this on stage were politicians and bankers.

The event involved 2,000 people, representing over 150 institutions, who it was claimed represented some 50,000 people from across London. These institutions were made up of schools, synagogues, churches, mosques, trade unions, university departments, and other civil society institutions from across the city. The key sentiment expressed was that: 'we were people who take responsibility for ourselves, for our families and for the communities where we live. And we expect others to do the same, whether they be our neighbours, whether they be bankers, or whether they be politicians.'

When the financial crisis hit London Citizens ran a listening campaign among its membership institutions. From that experience of listening to the experience of ordinary people a series of proposals were formulated. These were debated and voted on across three assemblies from across London. The proposals were not born out of any prior political programme or ideology. They were born out of listening to the experiences of ordinary people and how the recession was impacting them and a commitment to working together for the common good.

The proposals that London Citizens was hoping would make sense to the bankers and politicians that evening were:

i) the adoption of the Living Wage (modelled on the London Living Wage) as a commitment by all the major political parties in recognition that indebtedness among working families is often due to poor pay;

ii) to curb usury through the introduction of a 20% cap on interest rates on unsecured personal loans by financial institutions (e.g. credit card companies, store cards, door step lending agencies). The measure would bring the UK in line with Germany, France, Italy and Poland each of which have around a 20% cap on the rate of interest that can be charged on unsecured personal loans;

iii) expand local, mutual lending (e.g. credit unions) through infrastructural investment by banks and government so as to increase access to credit for the financially excluded;
iv) the development of a financial literacy project in partnership with the banks for use in schools and colleges, one where both what it means to be a responsible borrower and a responsible lender are outlined. This would be piloted by schools in membership of London Citizens; and

v) call on all political parties to commit in their election manifestoes to establishing a statutory charter of responsible lending overseen by an established regulatory body. Such a charter would include measures such as the requirement for debt management plans, transparency of charges and criteria for responsible marketing.

At the heart of the proposals was a call to restore responsibility to both borrowing and lending, and to demand greater accountability from financial institutions. Hence the five proposals: the Living Wage was seen as the best insurance against the working poor being forced into debt in order to make ends meet; the cap on interest rates safe-guards against the borrower being caught in a debt trap; the re-capitalisation of local, mutual lending ensures responsible, community-based forms of credit are available, so breaking the monopoly of the banks on the one hand and the power of the loan sharks on the other; financial literacy enables people to be more aware of the mechanisms of credit and the consequences of debt and to take responsibility for managing their money; and a statutory code for fairer lending binds the financial services industry to greater accountability and transparency.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement begins to focus its concerns and demands into concrete issues, it may be that it can learn something from the experience of those facing similar issues in London.