Tesco, you handsome devil, I have had enough of you

For some time I have been interested in consumption, and particularly the food industry. Following books such as Tescopoly and watching films such as Food, Inc., I have entrenched my view that there is something deeply wrong with our present over-consumption, and more importantly our relationship with supermarkets. This is a topic that has seen increasing prevalence in the media too, from the BBC’s Today Programme to the Guardian in recent times.

Boycotts, door-to-door campaigning, local community groups, co-operatives, spreading the word, keeping online momentum: they are almost all entirely different things, but also amount to a growing resistance against supermarkets. One example is the Tescopoly Alliance. This organisation describes itself as a campaign group that seeks to ‘challenge the negative impacts of Tesco’s behaviour along its supply chains both in the UK and internationally, on small businesses, on communities and the environment’. This online presence is impeccable, and just by scanning the website you can see the plethora of issues that trouble consumers throughout the UK. However, that is not all. Community groups and activism exists across the country. To name a few of them:

  • Campaign Against Another Supermarket in Hadleigh (CAASH) demonstrated that over 150 jobs would go if a new supermarket was built. 56 per cent of the town opposed a new supermarket.
  • Residents Against Thundering Rattling Unbearable Noise (RATRUN) exists to expose the true cost to Harlow’s residents of the Tesco HGV network.
  • People In North Berwick Against Tesco (PINBAT) co-ordinated a raft of objections to East Lothian Council to prevent a new Tesco store.

A Colchester campaign called TESCNO called for the planned city-centre Tesco to be abandoned in 2006 – successfully.

Other campaigns include Hereford Against Supermarkets Squashing our Local Economy (HASSLE), Community Has Rights In School Sites (CHRISS) and Unthank Road. [1] These are but small examples from the backlash against supermarkets. Tesco has been targeted particularly because of the damage it causes through it’s aggressive buying and selling – it has not outstripped the other retailers for no reason.

A national alliance and local activist groups can only logically culminate in a boycott. I have not bought a single item from a Tesco store since 2009. There are eight substantial reasons (in no particular order):

  1. Supermarkets are depressing. Well-being should not be overlooked any longer, and nor should food be a suicidal mission. Local, independent shops have managed to provide a sense of trust with their customers, and developed vibrant networks. The same cannot be said of supermarkets. According to a survey done by The Grocer, 56 per cent of Tesco customers were ‘bored’ by the shop, 53 per cent were ‘stressed’, 52 per cent ‘frustrated’ and 51 per cent ‘overwhelmed’. Over half of Tesco shoppers were unhappy in one of four unpleasant ways. [2]
  2. Loss of diversity. Chain stores, and particularly supermarkets, are killing of independent high streets. Recently, the BBC Today Programme has investigated the vibrancy of local markets, and how supermarkets are the largest contributor to their slow extinction. [3] This must change – we ought to encourage local businesses of all types. I want an end to clone towns.
  3. A chilling monopoly. Tesco and Asda/Wal-Mart combined control 48 per cent of the British grocery market. The Competition Commission has called this a ‘complex monopoly situation’. [4] This is unacceptable. Do I need to mention the fact that Tesco also provides a service from cradle-to-grave, at the expense of local retailers?
  4. Identity theft. In my previous article in which I have reviewed Andrew Simms’ Tescopoly, there is a section on privacy. In effect, Tesco is creating a commercial panopticon, accumulating more data than the East German Stasi.
  5. Supermarkets do not support the local economy. Profits made from a store go to head office, and do not trickle back into the community. A supermarket may create local jobs, but only at a cost of closing down independent businesses (which will also off-set any new jobs created). For example, CAASH (see above) calculated 150 jobs would be lost by a new store.
  6. The high cost to our low prices. We may be able to pick up a bunch of bananas for £1.19, but the the profits do not end up at the producer: just over 12 pence would go to the producing country. [5] Tesco and others abuse food suppliers on a global scale, and our relationship to cheap food must change. We are deferring the costs through time (the future) and space (to the developing world).
  7. Over-consumption. Supermarkets encourage you to spend more money than you necessarily need. Of course they do, they want to profit. The problem is that this causes a tendency for over-consumption, including obesity. However, there is also an environmental impact. If the world consumed as much as Britain does today, then we would need 3.1 times as many Earths. [6]
  8. The environmental impact. We are losing 13 million hectares of natural forest each year due to consumption; and Canadian stocks of cod have been depleted by 99 per cent over the last four decades. [7]  If we bought more local and organic food and shopped by bus, bike and on foot, we could save over £4 billion worth of environmental damages to the British economy. [8]

This may not be an exhaustive list. If anything, it is very short and obviously people can try to take issue with some (all) of them. But I have had enough of Tesco, of clone towns, and of supermarkets. Evidently I can’t live without them – supermarkets have made that impossible – on a realistic level. However, where I can, I will shop local.

[1] Andrew Simms, Tescopoly, pp.258-62.

[2] Ibid., p.20.

[3] BBC Today Programme, 29 August 2011: ‘Bristol road’s ‘bright retail future’’ and ‘Britain’s favourite High Street?’.

[4] See the report by the Competition Commission here.

[5] Simms, Tescopoly, p.218.

[6] Ibid., p.233.

[7] Peter Dauvergne, The Shadows of Consumption, p.19.

[8] Jules Petty and Tim Land, ‘Farm costs and food miles: an assessment of the full cost of the UK weekly food basket’, Food Policy 30:1 (2005).

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The Governance of the NUS: Solutions

Previously, I have blogged about the problems facing the governance structures of the NUS. They represented steep challenges to the democratic credibility of the NUS elite, the accountability processes of NUS meetings, and the economic viability of a monopolistic commercial arm. I want to make it clear that in principle, a strong national movement for the benefit of students must exist. I disagree with Laurie Penny and her claims that we don’t need an NUS to work for us at all, even less leaders and even parliament. Concerted, collective action can work in the context of a vibrant national movement. Penny forgets the fact that her role has become one of leadership. So then, we need a national movement. The NUS, in its current form, cannot even hope to amass a vanguard, let alone enjoy the support of students across the country. Liam Burns, NUS president, ignores this in his appeal for more action against cuts. He needs to sort out the NUS before he can try to sort out the government. If a Union demands £50,000 from Sheffield Students’ Union (SSU) every single year, we deserve to have an organisation committed to helping students. Below, I have outlined five key proposals that the NUS must enact with a great sense of urgency.

Direct Elections. The first change that Burns and the Block of 15 need to instil is a new democratic culture. Our leaders must be elected directly by its membership. Paying NUS members should have a democratic voice. NUS delegates provide a middle man, a nice solution to the NUS problem of democracy. It was useful in an age when we did not have a digital media. But I concede the point to Penny that Twitter and Facebook have given us fantastic opportunities for involvement. The internet is an opportunity for direct policy consultation, leadership and action. Only, the NUS has chosen not to use it. This is the first problem that the NUS needs to confront. Direct elections and a direct voice to students it says it represents.

Student Consultation. This notional right to democracy is not enough. We need a more substantive sense of deliberative decision-making, lacking across many national organisations. But even the current government manages to launch consultation programmes. Think tanks promote commissioned research projects. The National Executive Committee (NEC)? They meet six to seven times a year to discuss policy. NUS Connect has been challenged in my previous article. The NUS fails to promote its message through any concerted action with the people it supposedly represents. This will be an important change. It needs to consult, survey and question the student population. It needs to offer innovative policy proposals subject to scrutiny by students before it is adopted national policy. The internet, again, provides a platform in which this could happen. It could work like Jolitics, or 38 Degrees, or even adopt a more formal approach to research, like the Wilberforce Society. There are even possibilities of working with YouGov to consult student opinion, as YouGov@Cambridge has started to do. This would also ensure that the NUS line is constantly open for debate. The NUS can be an open, transparent organisation whilst maintaining serious support for students.

NUS Liaisons. Every single NUS affiliated body must have an elected NUS Liaison. Major consultation must be handled by this elected individual, who would be the facilitator of debate and ensure that the new qualities of democracy and consultation are further entrenched within each affiliated SU. Liaison officers would work in partnership with the NUS – it would be their role to liaise between the NUS and the individual SU.

Student Issues. The NEC needs to be entirely reformed. Student Select Committees must come into existence in order to promote the following interests: (i) gender and sexuality equality, (ii) mature and postgraduate student options, (iii) ethnic minorities representation, (iv) international student issues, and (v) community relationships. Each would be headed by directly elected Officers, and committees themselves made up of NUS Liaisons and NUS permanent support staff. The NEC would be made up of these Officers, plus a national president and three vice presidents who would further: (i) student finance and fees, (ii) student welfare, and (iii) student educational well-being.

Freedom of Choice. NUS Services Limited (NUSSL) needs to be either overhauled or abolished. It cannot work as a serious organisation to the benefit of the student population. Admittedly, economics is not my strong point, but even I can see that NUSSL is a ridiculous monopolistic enterprise. It could be reformed: adopt flexible policies, ensure local and independent businesses are included, promote competition and freedom of choice.

The internal structure of governance needs reform. This has become clear with the above policies. Only through direct elections, substantive consultation and freedom of choice can the NUS deliver on its promise to be a national voice of the student population. Without a clear plan of reform, Sheffield Students’ Union must disaffiliate. SSU does not benefit from NUSSL, nor from the NUS that is closed and undemocratic. To say that SSU would be part of a national conversation is a total mistake – the NUS closed conversation in 2008.

If the National Union of Students does not reform, it risks a systemic crisis of confidence. Do not let that happen, Liam Burns!

The Governance of the NUS: Problems

At first instance, flagging up shortcomings on the NUS may appear out of date. I’m inclined to disagree. Silently yet efficiently, Sabbatical Officers are taking charge at Sheffield Students’ Union (SSU) and across the country. More pressingly, the term of our new NUS president, Liam Burns has begun. The last time I’ve heard from him was 18 April in a column from the Guardian.  With our new elite we cannot forget why they are there: to represent us. The pressing issue the NUS faces is internal in nature. Despite early promises from Aaron Porter, the NUS still does not represent students, nor does it live up to the ideals with which it judges our government. The NUS does not provide a national, unified voice of the student movement. But it can, and so I would like line out firstly, it’s problems, and secondly, possible solutions.

The NUS has a huge democratic deficit that has engulfed it in critical problems. The Governance Review of 2008 is a case in point. Proposals deemed to make the NUS more ‘credible’ and ‘corporate’ were defeated by a slim majority. However, the then president had already decided to push ahead with the reforms anyway, calling two EGMs that passed and then ratified the proposed changes. Not only does the NUS leadership have no more than an indirect legitimacy, but they have even had the cheek to bypass the delegates! Why is it that in the 21st century we elect our NUS elite indirectly? We elect delegates to elect our president, who then bypasses its slim democratic input anyway. This issue was not a one off: enter Durham Union Society. A non-affiliated society wanted to have a debate on multiculturalism featuring two BNP critics in an affiliated venue. It was cancelled, due to pressure from the NUS and despite uproar from the student population. Durham Students’ Union withdrew their affiliation to the NUS shortly after this event. Two examples of many – the NUS is not democratic.

Nor is it accountable. Look no further than http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/. The website is intended to manage information on the electoral process and publish minutes. Meetings of the National Executive Council (NEC) are supposedly open, yet who actually knows about them? It was only through the pressure from They Work For Students (TWFS) that any kind of information was released. Debate on policy is non-existent for students. Democracy is a foreign word to NUS leaders. Accountability? Pah. The NUS cannot call itself a credible organisation, and shouldn’t have the cheek to announce itself as the voice of students. Their mission statement: “Our mission is to promote, defend and extend the rights of students and to develop and champion strong students’ unions”. It fails on all accounts.

Unfortunately, the democratic deficit is not all that face students the Union supposedly represents. Affiliated student unions, one of which is SSU, are forced to abide by NUS Services Limited (NUSSL) rules in buying and selling. NUSSL, the commercial arm of the NUS, restricts the number of companies SUs may place orders from – from alcohol to bread rolls. If it’s not on the list, no order may be made. It is said to have made £5.3 million worth of benefits for members. Good stuff, but firstly, imagine how much more money SUs could be making without restrictions; secondly, divide that figure for all members; and thirdly, subtract Sheffield’s affiliation fee. These rules are ridiculous, and the profits are hardly worth it. SSU knows how to spend its money, so why place rules on us? NUSSL is nothing short of a monopoly. All sorts of companies want a slice of the lucrative student market – NUSSL as middle man is no good to us.

Finally, let’s not forget that lovely blue NUS Extra Card. It used to be part and parcel of being a student. But now, people have to pay for it. The NUS homepage does not inspire students for a fight against cuts, but entices them to a lovely McDonalds and competitions to win some cash from the discount cards they ought to buy. It may generate money, but it hardly benefits students. And I do wonder, how many students actually carry one of these gems?

The NUS is unrepresentative of students. It does not further the interests of students, nor is it an open, competitive organisation. The NUS needs to change, fast. Political momentum is waning and Liam Burns must embrace a new democratic culture that enjoys the support of the student population in choppy waters for HE. The governance of the NUS is backward, indirect and provokes resentment. I urge it to reform, before more SUs abandon it. Our National Union of Students must become more democratic, accountable and competitive. I hope that our new Sabbatical Officers at SSU take NUS reform seriously.

If the NUS does not reform, Sheffield Students’ Union must disaffiliate. More on possible solutions next time.