Posts Tagged ‘Food Safety’

George Monbiot on the Political Power of the Supermarkets

April 20, 2016

As well as documenting the pernicious economic and social effects of the supermarkets, as they force out small business people and exploit their suppliers through some highly manipulative contracts and trading practices, Monbiot also discusses the political power of these vast corporate chains. He details the various chief executives and senior managers, who were given important political posts by New Labour and the Tories, and the various lobbying organisations they have set up to further their already extensive political influence. This goes on for several pages, but considering the immense power the supermarkets still hold, I think it’s worth reproducing this section of the chapter in full. Monbiot writes:

No commercial sector is better represented in British politics than the supermarkets. David Sainsbury, the chain’s former chief executive and the richest man in Britain, is a minister at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), which oversees competition policy. Tesco executives inhabit no fewer than six government task forces, including the DTI’s Competitiveness Advisory Group. A Tesco executive also sits on both the United Kingdom Eco-labelling Board and, alongside a representative of Marks and Spencer, the government’s Advisory Committee on Packaging. The superstores have lobbied to ensure that regulations in both areas remain as ‘flexible’ as possible. Andrew Stone, Managing Director of Marks and Spencer, was made a life peer soon after Labour took office. the official spokesperson for the four biggest supermarkets at the British Retail Consortium is Baroness Thornton, a Labour peer and Director of the Labour Women’s Network, and previous Chair of the Greater London Labour Party. Delegates to the 1998 Labour Party Conference wore identification badges sponsored and labelled by Somerfield. While Tesco gave £12m to the government’s Millennium Dome, David Sainsbury (Lord Sainsbury of Turville) has personally donated a total of £5m to the Labour Party.

The Sainsbury family has long been blessed with a direct line to power. While David Sainsbury, a Labour peer, is one of the businessmen closest to Tony Blair, his cousin and predecessor as chairman of the firm, the Conservative peer Sir John Sainsbury (now Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover), appears to have been Margaret Thatcher’s most frequent confidant. His brother, Sir Tim Sainsbury, another member of the Sainsbury board, was a Conservative MP who once held the same government post as David Sainsbury does today.

The opposition is unlikely to challenge the superstores’ power. The shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, who – if he took office – would be responsible for most of the decisions affecting the supermarket chains, is Archie Norman, previously the Chief Executive of Asda. Francis Maude, the shadow Foreign Secretary, was one of Asda’s non-executive directors.

The supermarkets conduct much of their lobbying through their trade association, the British Retail Consortium. According to its Director General, ‘BRC is no longer an organisation that simply reacts to Government proposed legislation or White Papers but sets out to help shape them. By creating significant links with special advisers, policy specialists and the leading think tanks, the intention is to work in a non-confrontational way so we are involved at the beginning of any legislative process.

Its tactics appear to be successful. it has persuaded the government to allow 41-tonne lorries on to British roads and to consider its request for 44-tone trucks to be permitted in a few years’ time. It claims to have played an important role in the government’s decision not to tax out-of-town car parking spaces. Speakers at the BRC’s annual dinner have included the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, the Conservative Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, John Major and Tony Blair. the Consortium’s submission on the minimum wage ‘was read by Chancellor Gordon Brown, the Treasury and the Bank of England’ and was ‘influential in persuading the Government and the Low Pay Commission’ to hold the level down to £3.60 per hour and introduce a separate, lower rate ‘not just for young people, but for returners to the labour market’. The consortium successfully lobbied the government to introduce amendments to the Competition Bill to permit ‘vertical agreements’ of the kind the superstores strike with their suppliers.

The BRC is also ‘ready to shape the Brussels agenda in the same way it does the UK Government agenda’. In Europe it has lobbied for ‘flexible’ consumer guarantees and against the European legislation requiring companies to inform and consult their workers. It has influenced European food safety standards and defended its members against the European requirement that the pesticides used on the foods they sell should be listed on the packaging. It has succeeded in keeping the definition of ‘free range’ as broad as possible.

Government is not the only realm in which the influence of superstores and their employees raises public concern. Sainsbury, for example, is a sponsor of the Soil Association, which regulates organic standards in Britain. In 1998, the Sunday Times alleged that a chemist from Sainsbury’s presented much of the case for the preservative sodium nitrate to the government’s United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards. The chemical is banned from organic produce in Germany and Holland, partly because, in large doses, it has been linked to cancer. What the Sunday Times did not discover, however, was that one of the members of the register is Robert Duxbury, an employee of J. Sainsbury Plc. Sainsbury was also one of the three sponsors of the Town and Country Planning Association’s inquiry into the future of planning, a subject in which the superstore chain has more than a passing interest. The Chairman of the Post Office, Neville Bain, is also a non-executive director of Safeway. This causes alarm to some of the people campaigning to keep post offices on the high street and out of the superstores.

In 1999,. the government published the first of its ‘annual reports’, which would tell the nation how well it was doing. It was launched not in Westminster, but in the Kensington Tesco’s. The Prime Minister’s office had given the supermarket chain an exclusive contract to sell it. It officially entered the public domain when Jack Cunningham, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, handed a copy of the head of Tesco. (Captive State, pp. 203-206).

So Sainsbury’s, Tesco’s and the rest are involved in making sure that road and planning policy reflects their interests, as does employment and agricultural legislation. They have ensured that a known carcinogen is permitted as a pesticide in this country, and have campaigned to keep the minimum wage low. It is therefore absolutely no surprise that the same exploitative gang have been so keen to back workfare. One of the personal stories recounted on the Boycott Workfare website is from someone who was taken on by the supermarkets. At the end of their official stint, they were asked by their boss to stay on. When they asked if they would be paid, their boss stated quite openly that there was no need for him to do so, when he could simply get more unpaid labour from workfare.

Britain is rapidly descending into a corporate oligarchy like America, and the supermarkets are at the centre of this mess of political corruption. It’s about time they were cleaned out, along with the rest of the corporatists occupying government posts.