The Labour MP Ian Lavery will not set foot in Newcastle United's ground if Wonga's sponsorship of the team goes ahead, while the (Labour) leader of the council, Nick Forbes, said that the loans company shouldn't be allowed to make such a deal unless it ploughed some of its money into the city's debt advice services. "Don't go to Wonga" would be a central plank of that advice – they could just cut out the middleman and put "Wonga – Don't Call Us" on the strip. I'm sure we'd all appreciate the irony, and the people who really needed a loan would call them anyway.
Their perceived misdeed is in the interest rate, which is astronomical – 4,214% APR – and the sense that they target people whom mainstream finance wouldn't lend to, because they'd struggle to pay it back. And their answer: those people still need finance, especially since they're excluded from "respectable" finance, and it's often cheaper to go to Wonga than it is to have an unarranged overdraft with a high street bank.
One argument they haven't made – because they couldn't – is that the city of Newcastle might not notice who the sponsor was. It is really marked how many people wear the strip even on non-match days; I've never seen such a high density of people walking round advertising the same defunct building society.
"I don't know why they couldn't just stick with Virgin Money," said Zufar Rehman, a club supporter and taxi driver. "I wouldn't be wearing a shirt with Wonga on it, that's for sure." This is a bit of a refrain. "I just think it should be left as Virgin Money," said John, standing outside Newcastle Labour Club. "It'll change, there'll be a new strip, all the kids will want them, it's all money, money, money."
His friend, also called John, said mordantly: "It's always the same, everybody has a go at the toon," but added controversially, "There's nowt wrong with Wonga. What about when they had the blue star? Nobody went on about people being alcoholics." (Newcastle Brown Ale sponsored the team between 1995 and 2000).
That's the problem: when you look at Wonga compared with Northern Rock, dispenser of 125% mortgages, who's to say which business model set out to be the most exploitative?
Wonga advertise, but could you say they were any more aggressive than Virgin Money, who encourage greater borrowing on their credit cards remorselessly? An unarranged overdraft with a high street bank can be more expensive than a Wonga loan. It varies from bank to bank, but that's a moot point because you probably won't be able to check: in January a Which? report asked volunteers to figure out the APRs on unarranged loans from four bank statements – between them, they only got seven out of 48 right. One volunteer had a PhD in maths.
Meanwhile, what are the other high street alternatives for emergency money?
A MoneyShop on the corner of Northumberland Street has rates so opaque that it's almost comical (their website is no better: under the heading Payday Loan Rates Explained, it explains what an interest rate is, without telling you what rates it lends at). None of it looks like a brilliant deal – one Chinese guy with very poor English walks in with some jewellery and walks out with £44; a girl rolls her existing loan into a bigger loan, for a trip to London. It's hard to feel very confident about these as financial decisions, but as the Cheque Shop opposite trumpets in the window, it's CHEAPER THAN A BANK (possibly).
What's interesting about all this is not that people at the bottom of the market get fleeced, but rather that those same tactics – complexity and exorbitance – are deployed by the mainstream as well.
However, sponsorship is a separate issue: Jean Boies, waiting at the bus station, said: "These lenders are creeping up everywhere, and I don't think people understand the APR system. These footballers are their heroes, if they say Wonga's good, they'll just assume it's OK."
I personally don't think it's as bad as Carol Vorderman advertising as the face of a fabulously expensive debt consolidation service in the mid-noughties. People reported feeling genuinely betrayed by how bad the deal was, having trusted the maths lady to have done the maths. Footballers, by contrast, are not known for their canny financial decisions. If anything, they're known for spending too much money on almost everything.
Wonga, incidentally, already have their name on the Newcastle United training ground. So it's possible that, like so many of these big corporate decisions, by the time people started talking about it, it had already happened.