Opposing Neo-Liberalism

The problematisation of the neo-liberal settlement has begun to slide us towards a paradigmatic shift in politics. This shift has been slow, and is still ongoing. Indeed, it is resisted by many, not least by European-driven austerity abroad and the Coalition’s squeeze on spending at home. Neo-liberalism, although arguably in decline, remains a beacon of light for British politics as much as it does in some quarters of Europe. [1] This is both surprising and concerning. It is surprising because it is the biggest crisis in confidence of the capitalist system for at least 80 years. It is concerning because it entrenches further economic inequalities and social injustices. Furthermore, the proponents of neo-liberalism have been able to reduce questions of (sustainable) economic prosperity and social justice to a simple cuts agenda. British politics is still guided by a specific ontological foundation of individualism and unfettered materialism. Both principles have pushed moral concerns and ethical dilemmas into the private sphere. It has hollowed-out the principles that underpin politics – debate, discussion and conflict – and replaced it with a logic of depoliticisation.

More urgently than ever before, we need an alternative to this agenda. The neo-liberal settlement emerged out of a number of dilemmas in public policy during the 1970s, ostensibly precipitated by the 1974 oil crisis. It took five years to turn academic theories (that existed as early as the 1940s) into policy ideas, and a further four years (at least) to cement neo-liberalism into a policy agenda under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. [2]  1997 was a watershed moment because it recast the neo-liberal project and challenged many aspects of it. However, it was not able to challenge the fundamentals of the economic model based on individualism and insatiable consumerism. The centre-left was not anywhere near confident enough to challenge this agenda following the collapse of the left throughout the globe during the early 1990s. Furthermore, neo-liberalism was not problematised by a series of exogenous (and inevitable) dilemmas as it is today. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown therefore accommodated aspects of their communitarian governing project with neo-liberal concessions. [3] Having said that, New Labour did challenge the social settlement. It introduced a minimum wage, ensured nursery education for all three and four year olds, implemented a tax credits regime, invested in the NHS at record levels, brought peace to Northern Ireland and recognised civil partnerships. It corrected the excesses of neo-liberalism after-the-fact. It was patently not enough, but members and supporters of the Labour Party should be proud of what it got right in government.

The contemporary challenge for Labour is to offer an alternative that reaches beyond merely amelioration or accommodation with a discredited economic and societal model. Debates that had been buried under neo-liberal rhetoric have resurfaced, which means that the centre-left is able to expose some of its myths. The Policy Review under Labour’s Jon Cruddas has begun – although tentatively – to explore options that go beyond limiting the negative side-effects of neo-liberal capitalism. Ed Miliband himself has repeatedly called for a comprehensive re-think away from ‘irresponsible capitalism’ towards a more ethical capitalist system. Miliband has called himself a ‘responsible capitalist’. In his interview in Shifting Grounds he argues that ‘the way economies succeed is not by a few people at the top, but by supporting the many’ and that ‘unless you have the infrastructure that supports the many, government willing to reform the banking system to support the many, the skills system to support the many, the industrial policy, you’re never going to succeed’. A recent speech by Miliband highlighted that responsible capitalism has an agenda where companies pursue profit in tandem with an equal society, where power is in the hands of the many, and where citizens recognise responsibilities to each other. At a recent One Nation conference in London, Steward Wood, an advisor to Ed Miliband, built on this by calling for: ‘a different kind of economy, a determination to tackle inequality, an emphasis on responsibility (of the people at the top and the bottom), protecting the elements of our common life, and challenging the ethics of neo-liberalism’. [4]

Commentators, of the left and right, within Labour and beyond, have questioned much of the Policy Review to date. The Policy Review has come under hefty criticism for being slow, bulky and far from radical. This is, perhaps, because the review confronts the two most dominant traditions within the Labour Party – New (or Purple) Labour and Old (or Red) Labour. The two perspectives have dominated Party debates. Blue Labour, the new player of the game, does not have quite such prestige. And yet, this tradition opposes both the statism of the Old and the neo-liberalism of the New. Of course, the skirmishes between the three traditions are a sideshow, leaving the Policy Review to get on with its work rather calmly. Clearly, the problem is not that Labour is empty of ideas. Rather, the problem is that Labour has been too cautious to articulate its alternative vision for politics, society and economics – in part, no doubt, given the divisions within the Party about its future. However, it is time that Labour spells out its vision in unambiguous terms.  Taking the three headings of the Policy Review, Labour must go into a new direction and call for:

  • An ethical politics. Labour must reject the simplistic rational-choice individualism that has been a crucial foundation for neo-liberalism. The greed-based model has destroyed faith in politics. Power must be radically decentralised to local councils and regional assemblies. The liberal commitment to depoliticisation must come to an end immediately.
  • A fairer society. Passions over welfare reform run high, but Labour must be bold and challenge the divisive language espoused by many on the right. Labour must reduce inequalities by tackling our inefficient tax system and ensure that living standards lie at the heart of a Labour programme for reform.
  • Sustainable economic growth. The challenge for a sustainable recovery dominates public discourse.  Labour must re-balance the economy in a radical way – something that New Labour never dared to do. The real test, however, is the extent to which this is sustainable. Not simply in material terms, but environmental ones, too.

Some of these are in strong opposition to the Red Labour (statism versus localism) and Purple Labour visions (Keynesian versus Polanyian economics). [5] Crucially, many of the aims chime together. Challenging unfairness and inequality are things that have united all three shades of contemporary Labour traditions, which is why it must be at the heart of Labour’s governing vision in 2015. The Party leadership has failed to be bold in its critique of the status quo. This is somewhat perplexing, given the resounding support Miliband has received in the past for taking on vested interests. 2015 could be a watershed moment, if Labour wants it to be.

mg

[1] C. Crouch (2010) The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[2] Thatcher was guided, for instance, by Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, originally published in 1944. The book itself led to numerous libertarian critiques of the welfare consensus.

[3] M. Bevir (2010) Democratic Governance, Princeton: PUP, p.130.

[4] For a summary of Wood’s speech, click here.

[5] See, for example, A. Finlayson (2013) ‘From Blue to Green and Everything in Between: Ideational change and left political economy after New Labour’, British Journal of Politics and IR 15:1, pp.70-88.

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Pinning Colours to the Mast

It is now the middle of 2013, and we have surpassed the half-way point of this Parliament. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have presided over a turbulent three years with mainly negative evaluations (to put it mildly). We constantly hear of a crisis: within the Conservative Party, the leadership of Cameron has been rocked; within the Coalition, the relationship between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats is increasingly strained; and, within the Treasury, economic forecasts remain as bleak as ever. However, it would be misguided to call these ‘crises’. We are not in a crisis or even going from one crisis to another. We are in a period of social, political and economic malaise. We are faced with a breakdown of stability that has guided British politics for the past 30 years or so under a discredited banner of neo-liberalism. [1] Whilst this is going on, the Labour Party is hammering out its long-term response. In 2010, Labour polled just 29 percent of the popular vote, which understandably provoked a debate about what the Party stands for. Three years down the line, are we seeing a close to this debate? Far from it. Despite Labour’s lead in the polls, the electorate failed to endorse the Party in local elections. It seems that Ed Miliband’s leadership, although cemented, has yet to take a decisive turn towards a coherent governing project with which voters can identify.

Clearly, the Party’s debate is an internal one (at times, one could suggest add the adjective ‘parochial’). However, what is not often ignored is that Labour is made up of a broad coalition of forces that is far more nuanced than most people – Party members included – are willing to admit. The debate is not about Old Labour and New Labour. Both traditions are, without doubt, dominant in many discussions. However, it is possible to characterise many more strands, some of which overlap and some of which diverge radically. Some of these include: Blue Labour [2], Fabian statists [3], ‘Red’ Labour [4], Purple Labour (i.e., Blairites) [5] and Compass, all of which are informed by a proliferation of other ideational networks found in think tanks that include Demos, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the New Economics Foundation, the Resolution Foundation, Policy Network, and many more. [6]

These are competing traditions, and only one specific mixture can emerge out of this coalition of forces in 2015. If this does not happen, then the Labour Party will implode (much like the coalition within the Conservative Party at present). Not only are Labour traditions competing, they are also in opposition to one another, with high-flying accusations. Progress is often accused of a soulless neo-liberal approach to politics and economics. Those opposing austerity are accused of being nothing more than a ‘repository for people’s anger’ [7] or a ‘voice of protest’. The Blue Labour tradition has been attacked as ‘toxic’ and out-of-date. And statism is seen as ‘power hoarding’ that prevents empowerment of the people. Rarely have these attacks been constructive (as some of the examples highlight). It is true that some organisations have begun thinking about strategy, and others have come up with policy ideas. [8] But on the whole, numerous factions within Labour have become increasingly vocal in questioning the calmness of the Policy Review, from New Labour grandees to stroppy trade unionists. What is telling, and should reassure many, is that Ed Miliband is not willing to be pushed around by either New Labour or the trade unions. He is sticking to his own convictions to re-found the principles of the Labour Party in a holistic fashion.

Unfortunately, this is seemingly not enough as factionalism amongst student societies, at public meetings and across the Internet remains steeped full of emotive anger and frustration. Given this, in addition to the malaise facing politicians, it is now more important than ever that Ed Miliband and the Labour Party identify a governing project. [9] This is not about creating a credible economic alternative to the Conservative Party. This is about a vision for politics, economics and society. Without this, the electorate will not vote Labour into government.

One Nation Labour is the banner under which the Party will attempt to unite competing traditions at the general election. Yet few people know what this slogan entails despite the bourgeoning articles, speeches and conferences. Opposition to Labour – from all sides of the political spectrum – is united in calling the Party hollow. This is, perhaps, a curious accusation given that there are so many different centre-left traditions and networks identified above. This has been caused by the fact that the differing coalition forces within the Party and beyond have begun to set out their own appeals for the direction of Labour without fully engaging in dialogue with one another. We have seen the publication of The Purple Book by Progress followed more recently by a new website calling for a Campaign for a Labour Majority. [10] We have an alternative book called The Socialist Way (edited by Roy Hattersley and Kevin Hickson) outlining a statist, social democratic vision. [11] And finally, we have a trail of articles and speeches by Maurice GlasmanMarc Stears and Jon Cruddas that are united by an appeal towards Blue Labour that found their way into an ebook.

The factions within the Party have begun to cluster around these three reference points: Purple Labour, Red Labour and Blue Labour. All three are beyond the traditional Old and New divide that gripped Labour’s path to victory in 1997. [12] Yet it remains to be seen if any of these interact to form a winning formula. Peter Kellner has recently argued that the Labour Party faces a tough struggle to be viewed as a strong, passionate force, rather than a bunch of ‘nice but dim’ policy-makers. [13] The problem is that all three contemporary strands have offered little more than opposition, squabbling and futile accusations. We need to move beyond critique, and form a governing project. This was recognised as far back as 1945, in which the then Labour Manifesto warned: ‘It is very easy to set out a list of aims. What matters is whether it is backed up by a genuine workmanlike plan conceived without regard to sectional vested interests and carried through’. [14] Thus far, Ed Miliband’s leadership has been received with lukewarm interest, which has failed to combine the widespread opposition to the Coalition into a unifying vision. Is this the reason that Labour failed to make further inroads on 02 May? We have pinned our colours – blue, purple, and red – to the mast. The question remains whether that mast is a governing project worthy of the gauntlet One Nation.

mg

[1] C. Crouch (2010) The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[2] M. Glasman et. al. (eds.) (2011) The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, ebook available here.

[3] See, for example, Y. Roberts (2012) ‘The Relational Reality’, Fabian Review 124:2, pp.7-8.

[4] R. Hattersley and K. Hickson (ed.) (2013) The Socialist Way: Social democracy in contemporary Britain, London: I.B.Tauris.

[5] G. Cooke et. al. (2012) The Purple Papers, London: Progress. Available here.

[6] Taking the issue at the broadest conceivable level, there is also a trade union movement that is ferociously against cuts, an Occupy movement that sought to emphasise the ‘99 percent’, and members of hard-left parties – the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party, and so on (ad infinitum?).

[7] T. Blair (2013) ‘Labour must search for answers and not merely aspire to be a repository for people’s anger’, New Statesman (12-25 April), p.27.

[8] See, for example, the articles in Fabian Review, 125:1, pp.1-30.

[9] R. Philpot (2013) ‘Remember Wilson’, Progress, pp.10-1.

[10] R. Philpot (ed.) (2011) The Purple Book, London: Progress.

[11] R. Hattersley and K. Hickson (ed.) (2013) The Socialist Way: Social democracy in contemporary Britain, London: I.B.Tauris.

[12] Although Old Labour and Red Labour are obviously linked, as are New Labour and Purple Labour. But importantly, both movements have moved on and re-articulated their visions given the 2008 economic crises.

[13] P. Kellner (2013) ‘Majority rules’, Progress, pp.14-21.

[14] The Labour Party (1945) Let Us Face the Future: A declaration of Labour policy for the consideration of the nation, London: Labour Party. Available here.

You party if you want to; this lad’s not for partying

I’ve had mixed comments for the title alone, so I doubt that the following comments will yield much more consensus. But, in many ways, that’s what politics is for. It has never been for or about consensus, as Margaret Thatcher understood very well.

Margaret Thatcher died on 08 April 2013. Her death was marked as controversially as her policies in government. It has since sparked all sorts of debates and questions about her legacy, her ‘haunting’ influence today, the way she should be buried, and how she has affected the Labour Party. But her death itself has been marked in no less controversial terms: from tributes and mourning, on the one hand, to opening bottles of champagne and death parties, on the other hand. Death parties occurred in Glasgow and London, and even locally in Sheffield. It has sparked outrage from the Daily Mail. It has also seen a curious defence on a Guardian blog.

These parties are sickening. There are numerous reasons for why we should not celebrate the fact that someone has died, and it is not about ‘death etiquette’. It is far more about human dignity and a separation between a person’s moral worth and that individual’s politics. We are, of course, defined by our politics; but that does not mean that we cannot separate an individual from the politics in which he or she believes. Politics may well be personal, but senseless tribalism does much to harm social cohesion and constrains meaningful debate. With regards to Margaret Thatcher, there is a rightful argument to be made that her politics negatively affected Britain (to put it very mildly). Yet, some people have argued that this gives them a right to celebrate her death. Some say it is only natural – even moral – to have an emotion when someone dies.

This position is inexplicable. The policies of Thatcher (which incidentally predated her reign as prime minister) had already occurred. Her power to affect politics was non-existent on 08 April 2013. Her death, then, changed little (if anything). So to express a desire to see a woman dead (a woman who had dementia and suffered from minor strokes at that) seems illogical. So what does a ‘death party’ achieve? What did a sign saying ‘THE BITCH IS DEAD’ do, other than reinforce misogyny in political culture? How does buying the song ‘Ding Dong: The Witch Is Dead’ affect our political classes into acting any differently against the austerity agenda? Most of those people celebrating her death argue that this is rightful justice; we are showing our anger at Thatcherism and the way she destroyed our country. Do you not think, however, that if you spent your energy on campaigning, protesting, or generally getting involved with politics that this will affect more change than buying a song for 79 pence from iTunes?

There is only one way to justify happiness in the face of death: that, in your opinion, someone deserves to die; and that, without her death, justice is not achieved. It is a justification that makes logical sense, but one that is abhorrent and illegitimate. Because to say that you believe Margaret Thatcher deserved to die, you are saying that some people, in this case someone who made decisions after winning democratic elections, deserves death. [1]

This is repugnant and shows that some people have little moral integrity. I find that repugnant because there is a difference between someone’s politics and someone as a person. Every individual, in my mind, is of equal, intrinsic moral worth; I wish to live in a tolerant society where we can disagree about politics without hating the worth of a person, without a senseless tribalism. This is the foundation upon which democracy rests and to reject this is to reject democratic principles.

People have responded to the above by arguing that the Daily Mail and other papers have celebrated the death of left-wing leaders. That the Daily Mail gloats at death. That the Daily Mail is morally repugnant. But we already knew this, did we not? Since when can we justify our moral acts simply by the virtue of others’ actions. Once again, the argument does not make sense to me. It is, in fact, disheartening to learn that members on the left of politics – who, by and large, believe in dignity, equality and social justice – are making the case against dignity in death and against equal moral self-worth. It is disheartening to learn that people celebrating the death of an elderly woman are basing their justifications on actions from the Daily Mail.

None of this is to say that you cannot debate the legacy of Thatcher and Thatcherism. It is not to say that her actions as prime minister were destructive, wrong and divisive. Because they were. It is right that we discredit the needless privatisation of certain industries, it is right that we denounce her actions that exacerbated a divide between north and south, and, something personal to me, it is right that we resoundingly condemn Section 28. The legacy of Thatcher on British politics from 1979 onwards – to this very day – deserves to be debated and discussed. Some of her acts deserve to be shunned; others deserve to be praised. None of this is to argue against Margaret Thatcher as a person. It is to condemn Thatcherism as a political philosophy.

Thatcher defined her age. But it is questionable that she gets such a high profile funeral. It is questionable, in particular, that the royal family will attend. A bastion of so-called neutrality, the British monarch has only attended the funeral of one other prime minister: Winston Churchill. It is also questionable that parliament was recalled. It surprised the Speaker of the Commons, and arguably caused unnecessary expenses. But to have a party at the death of an elderly woman – that is beyond question abhorrent.

mg

[1] Inadvertently, you are also arguing for the death penalty.

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).

Review: Tescopoly, Andrew Simms

It’s one of those books you see on the shelf that makes you roll your eyes. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised. Dotted with statistics and a truly engaging writing style, Simms offers a provocative account of the British retail industry and how it is eating away at our independence. Tescopoly makes a number of arguments: firstly, how high streets are becoming ‘clone towns’; secondly, how supermarkets are unnecessarily invading your privacy; thirdly, the colonial-style global operations; fourthly, the detrimental impact on the environment; and fifthly, how to restore some order. I am only going to cover three of these here: communities, privacy and globalisation.

Communities

Libertarians and liberals rightly fear a state monopoly over services, and especially a cradle-to-grave-type government. This Orwellian picture has shifted, however, towards a new founder for dominance – namely, the supermarket. Tesco won’t just sort all your grocery needs out, but it will also provide: an in-store pharmacy, opticians, alcohol, junk food, healthy food, drugs, house decorations, lighting, music, DVDs, electrical appliances, clothes, plates, cutlery, crockery, washing machines, microwaves, garden furniture, loans, mortgages, credit card and other financial services, mobiles, holidays, insurance, photography centre, broadband, paperwork for a divorce or to make a will. Should we have a problem with this? Yes, if you believe in diversity of produce and freedom of choice. And especially if Tesco takes up to 50 pence out of every pound spent in local economies. The problem with providing all the services above is that it puts local, independent shops and retailers out of business. Local businesses are often governed by an 80/20 rule, in which 80 per cent of profit comes from 20 per cent of goods (p.26). This allows independent shops to stock niche and specialist goods, catering for a wide range of customers in a given community. If, however, a general retailer like Tesco takes away 80 per cent of profits by providing the 20 per cent of high-turnover goods, then independent businesses go bust. Allowing one super store to cater for all your needs might be convenient at first, but if you want variety then that convenience will be out of favour, especially due to supermarket power in terms of below-cost selling and price-flexing (pp.305-6). British towns are turning into ‘clone towns’ with identical high streets across the country.

Privacy

Another point raised in this book is something that could easily be mistaken for identity theft. Tesco boasts that it could produce the following consumer profile:

Mrs Smith is a young adult. She is a Premium shopper. She uses Watford Hypermarket for major monthly shops and Covent Garden Metro for daily requirements. She often shops late in the evening and buys upmarket products. She is particularly loyal to her cat food brand and fine fabric washing powder. She buys Hello magazine and sometimes country life. (p.98)

Tesco will also know her address, phone number and probably her email address. Imagine if Mrs Smith also held a Tesco bank account and her mobile was on a Tesco contract? Tesco holds a record of every single movement and conversation you ever make. All this from a little Clubcard! Neo-liberals will say it’s all for marketing purposes – yet I wonder whether or not Tesco knows a little bit too much about Mrs Smith. And a further note: there are 25 million registered Clubcards, which means that Tesco holds more files on its customers than the notorious East German Stasi ever held on its 16 million citizens (p.96).

Global Operations

A third point from Simms is the global reach of retail. Even the bastion of right-of-centre thinking, the Sunday Telegraph, has said that Tesco’s global operations is a form of ‘neo-colonialism’. To see why, take a look at the reception that Tesco inspectors got from a farm in remote Africa, witnessed by an investigative journalist:

The visit was the visit of a king. They [the community] slaughtered animals. They roasted a lamb. The schoolkids rehearsed welcome songs for three days and gave Tesco presents. Tesco gave nothing back. The adage ‘To those that have shall be given’ came to me. Why would poor Zimbabwean children give present to Tesco when they didn’t even have a school on the farm? (p.206)

The farmers assumed Tesco was a country and its staff were royalty. The low prices in our supermarkets have high costs elsewhere. Simms notes that we are indirectly financing a new form of slavery: a plantation worker in the Dominican Republic gets paid £2.48 for the day (the day being a start at 5am and bed the next morning at 2am); a girl in Bangladesh gets £9 per month to make those £3 jeans in a Tesco store. In a final example: for every £1 worth of fruit (a banana in this case), the producing country gets 12 pence (p.218). Free marketeers will tell me that this is competition in action. Really? Tesco will:

  • Request a financial contribution to place its products on promotional offers, to cover product wastage, to refurbish a store or to open a new store, to the costs of bar-code changes, or to help a specific promotion that Tesco could not afford.
  • Seek improvement in terms (of Tesco) as a condition to display their products, increase the product range or threaten to de-list the supplier.

That’s all well and good, and suppliers should just tell Tesco to stick their business. But seeming as 78 per cent of our goods come from supermarkets, suppliers do not have that choice but must sell to Tesco and others. This is not a ‘free’ market.

There are a few shortcomings to this book: i) no internal investigations of how Tesco works and hires its staff, ii) Simms seems fine to just use someone else’s work to offer solutions on how to tackle the problems, and iii) there is also too much focus on one supermarket. Nonetheless, this book is an essential guide for anyone wanting a broad picture regarding British retail. Read this book!