POLITICS
09/07/2012 06:16 BST | Updated 08/09/2012 06:12 BST

Ed Miliband And Ed Balls Plan To Break Up The Banks

Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls have been outlining how they would break up Britain's big five high street banks, believing the increased competition would be worth the upheaval to the industry and to potentially hundreds of thousands of customers.

Speaking at the London HQ of the Co-operative Bank in East London, Miliband sounded a triumphant note, suggesting that finally people understood what he'd meant by "predatory capitalism".

"They didn't understand what I meant," said Miliband, who was criticised for being vague at the time he coined the moniker six months ago. Since then the banking crisis at Barclays has rocked the industry and looks likely to spread to other financial institutions.

Miliband lamented the changes to the banking sector, suggesting he wanted to return to a previous era where there were "major banks to choose from, different building societies in every town.

"Now, 200 building societies have been lost and there are only five major banks," he said.

Labour would compel hundeds of branches to be sold off to two new banks, bringing to seven the number of high-street lenders. Flanked by Ed Balls, Milband said that the so-called casino banking which had contributed to the crash was "economically damaging and socially disruptive," and accused the government of watering down plans to ring-fence casino banking from the retail divisions where people's savings are held.

There has been speculation that up to 1,000 branches would be sold to make way for the two new banks. Labour sources say this is not a "hard target" and that customers who bank at the branches to be sold would have the choice of whether or not to move to the new bank.

Labour believes that the disruption would be worth it to create greater competition in the banking sector, which it believes has let down customers by failing to offer a real choice in products. Ed Miliband spoke repeatedly of cases where people had been sold loans linked to complex structured finance products, which had ended up giving short-term profits to the bank while tying people up into loans they couldn't repay.

The government has agreed to implement the Vickers report, which would make it easier for customers to switch accounts and would apply the ring-fence from casino banking. But George Osborne has been accused of "watering down" the proposals, creating only a limited firewall and allowing banks to hold less cash in reserve than originally proposed by Vickers.

Labour are also keen to explore ways in which people could switch accounts but keep their account number, in a similar fashion to mobile users who switch networks but keep their phone number. The party acknowledges that this would require a major reboot of the IT systems between banks, and would require "quite a bit of work behind the scenes."

The party says the sale of branches is achievable because a precedent is about to be set; Lloyds is finalising a deal which would sell-off 400 of its branches to the Co-op bank, a sale which has been "highly complicated" and subject to months of delays.

The announcement from the two Eds comes after Labour failed to secure a judge-led inquiry into the Barclays Libor scandal last week. After a rowdy debate Labour lost two votes in the Commons and the government secured its objective of setting up a Parliamentary inquiry to be chaired by the Tory MP Andrew Tyrie.

The speeches come ahead of two appearances in Parliament by the Chairman of Barclays Marcus Agius on Tuesday morning, and the deputy governor of the Bank of England Paul Tucker on Monday afternoon at 4:30pm.

MPs are likely to want to know what discussions the two men had during attempts by Barclays to fix the Libor rate - which determines the rates at which banks lend to each other. The questions are likely to focus on whether anyone at the Bank of England knew about or tacitly sanctioned the rigging of Libor, and how much if anything officials and ministers in the last Labour government knew about the practice.

Last week the former CEO of Barclays Bob Diamond acknowledged that the bank carried out a "reprehensible" plan to rig Libor during three periods between 2005 and 2009.

Ed Balls categorically denies that having conversations with the Bank of England on fixing Libor, as did the former Business minister Shriti Vadera, who played a pivotal role in bailing out the banks at the height of the financial crisis in the autumn of 2008.