IIt’s an awkward moment for a Tesco chairman, trying to portray reality while still maintaining the brand-boosterism that someone in distant MBA hell has decided to demand of shareholders. In an interview on the Today program this week, John Allan, who is a former chairman of the CBI, dispensed with the second imperative entirely. He described what cashiers told him: that customers asked them to stop when they had rung £40. People no longer have room for manoeuvre. It was a crisp, evocative description of how skinny people are already, an unspoken emphasis that it’s everybody’s business, and a hint, if you choose to hear it, that it’s is unprecedented.
So many phrases have casually entered the vernacular, and we use them as if they’ve been around forever: revenue squeeze; rate hikes; energy price spikes; the cost of living crisis. There is nothing complicated about this new vocabulary, but it gives the impression that events are technical or abstruse. It was quite striking to hear Allan humanize it – there’s nothing complicated about it. There’s just one person, standing in front of a cashier, saying, ‘Stop when you get to £40, and hope the main thing is successful.
What is even more striking, however, is that he then approved a windfall tax on oil and gas companies. This is not a controversial point of view. You can split your hair over whether their profits are “obscene”, but the entire fossil fuel industry wouldn’t deny that it was all a fluke, and they half expect to an exceptional tax since the start of their windfall. . Yet, if you’ve ever heard the idea, it comes from the Labor Party; so the suggestion, being the policy of the opposition, openly defies the government until it turns around and suggests it itself.
Owners of Britain’s big business have had an interesting few years, to say the least. Right from the Brexit referendum campaign, they were plagued by a particular omertà, where no one but Deborah Meaden was allowed to take a stand on the lack of virtues, from their point of view, of leaving the EU.
They couldn’t give a Brexit opinion before him (honorable mention, here, to Pimlico Plumbers’ Charlie “bollocks to Brexit” Mullins), in case they were seen as interfering with Democratic outcomes. They couldn’t give notice after that, because what if some of their shareholders voted to leave? They could not decide on the type or execution of Brexit, because the important thing was to stop debating it and get clarification. They couldn’t offer an opinion on the Conservative Party except to quietly slip away from its circle of donors – or were they squeezed out by the hedge fund managers who now dominate? They couldn’t even respond when the Prime Minister openly said “fuck business”, which is a real headache.
You will remember, however, that this discretion was one-sided: business leaders who leaned towards the leave were very open to doing so. There may not have been many – James Dyson, who later tried to move his HQ to Singapore, and Wetherspoon boss Tim Martin, who suggested at the start of the pandemic that his bar staff might find a job, ahem, Tesco – but they made enough noise.
This resolute private sector tact has contributed to the two great clichés of current politics – first, that vocally opposing Brexit, and later, the mismanagement of public finances during the pandemic, is a rather childish pursuit, that adults and wealth creators do not. . Second – and this has absolute durability – that corporations prefer conservative governments because they create more prosperity. The two have created a mirage of authority and maturity around Johnson and the furlough project, which are objectively quite delinquent. The political opposition remained isolated, hysterical and irritating – a lonely, loud car alarm surrounded by non-barking dogs.
In fact, the windfall tax is nowhere near radical enough on the part of Labour. He fails to point out why the fossil fuel industries are so dominant in the first place, or to draw a line between the current crisis and David Cameron’s irresponsible abandonment of “green shit” and his absurd moratorium on wind farms. As a stand-alone policy, it paints the problem as one of greedy corporations rather than economic policies that give them that market power in the first place.
It is, however, a valuable first step in an evolving project, which at least correctly re-empowers the government in its ability to step in and help individuals overcome difficulties. The Conservatives’ response to the crisis – to be brief, “There’s not much we can do, have you tried a food bank?” – dissolves on contact with any practical idea.
Labor should not rely on trusted voices of trade and political impartiality to push their agenda forward. And it would be rash to count on the members of the government to notice it; they have ignored commercial interests with impunity, or even glee, for so long that they are unlikely to suddenly rise up and take them seriously. Still, that doesn’t make the moment any less seismic; it’s a shift in what constitutes corporate common sense, from resignation to recognition that there may be more than one game in town.