Joe Hill, the Swedish-American trade unionist, wrote a last letter to his fellow members shortly before he faced the firing squad in Utah in 1915. What Joe Hill told his supporters contains a truth still relevant for us today when confronting the coalition’s failing deficit strategy, its hollowing out of Britain’s remaining social-democratic settlement and its impact on our economy: “Don’t mourn; organise.”
That is our choice when it comes to payday loan companies, so called ‘legal loan sharks’, and the economic future they promise us – to mourn or to organise. We could mourn, when legal loan sharks prey upon economically vulnerable households, charging cripplingly high interest rates, sometimes as high as 36,000 per cent APR, with an estimated four million people this year taking out such extortionate loans, part of a pattern where public debt is being transferred to private households. These are very often people struggling to make ends meet and with nowhere else to turn; one in 10 UK payday customers have incomes of less than £11,100 per year and 46 per cent have incomes of less than £15,500 a year. Moreover, these loans are very often to pay for the most basic of necessities, like food or rent. We could mourn that although the Olympics showed the best of us as a society, where we briefly shared a truly common life, the FA, custodian of our national game that should unite us, is failing to enforce its own regulations and therefore economically dividing us by enabling legal loan sharks to advertise on football merchandise aimed at children. What does that say about what our clubs stand for and our values?
And we could mourn the fact that the only thing that seems to grow faster in Osborne’s Britain than the profits of legal loan sharks (Wonga recently announced a near-quadrupling of its profits this past year) are the queues outside Trussell Trust food banks, the wait for advice at CABs or the record numbers going to debt charities such as Christians against Poverty. One such debt charity in my local area of Brent told me recently that one-third of their clients have stated an intention or thought to attempt suicide because of uncontrollable debt; legal loan sharks are economic predators that exacerbate these problems who should have no place in a reformed, more responsible capitalism.
So there is much to mourn. But mourning is not enough, and if it leads us to inaction the legal loan sharks win. Instead, we must get organised. We must organise with local councillors, as we’ve started to do in Brent, Camden, Islington, Medway and Birmingham, to push them to tackle the problem by strengthening their local credit union movement and by investigating what powers they have to tackle the spread of legal loan sharking. We must organise with others in power, from MPs and candidates to those who have the power to change official party policy on this issue, pushing for a cap on the total cost of credit to put a basic threshold of decency into the consumer credit market. Above all, we must get organised ourselves, whether by investing in our local credit unions to help build a fairer financial future, or starting local actions which target these companies on our high streets and show others in our local communities that there are alternatives.
So, don’t mourn; get organised. Because the prize is worth the struggle. If we refuse just to stand back and let unregulated predatory companies run roughshod over people’s lives, together we can build a better credit market for all based on fair competition and co-operation, not usury and exploitation. In doing so, we will help forge a more responsible social democratic society.
Mathew Lawrence is a Movement for Change activist and Labour party member, who tweets as @DantonsHead. To find out more about training and actions to tackle legal loan sharking and promote fairer alternatives, visit www.getorganised.org.uk
Loansharking Training Session with the Cooperative party
Hosted by Labour-Cooperative MP Stella Creasy, join us for an introduction to the principles of Community Organising, with practical advice to equip participants with the skills and confidence to build an effective local legal loanshark campaign.
1 October, 7.30-9pm, Manchester Central Exchange 1
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