An open letter to the Co-op

Dear management of Co-op Food,

A quick question: If you owned something you wanted to get rid of and I offered you money for the item, what would you do?

A) Sell me the item

B) Give it to me for free (The sun’s out, you’re feeling generous)

C) Throw the item in the bin

It’s hard to imagine C being most people’s first choice but this is exactly what your Co-op stores do every single day with food.

A case in point: I was in your Greenwich store last week and the pineapple I brought up to the till wouldn’t scan. It was out of date and as soon as this happens the scanners on your tills fail to recognise the barcode. Fair enough.

So can I have it for free then?

The cashier laughed and said she couldn’t do this.

Because you have to throw it away?

This, as you have probably guessed, isn’t the first time this has happened. The cashier laughed again and nodded, somewhat embarrassed.

You see how ridiculous this situation is?

Here is an item that only a few minutes earlier I was willing to pay full price for – the pineapple was to my mind absolutely fine and worth the money. Not only would your store not accept my money, you wouldn’t even give the pineapple away for free. Your website proudly lists your approach to ‘ethical food’. Please explain to me how flying food across the world (Costa Rica, in this instance, I believe) only to throw it in a bin can be called ethical?

I’m sure you will tell me this is out of your hands. That the law dictates any food past its sell-by date must be disposed of in such a way. If so, surely it should be the Co-ops responsibility, as an advocate of ‘ethical food’, to lead lobbying campaigns against such absurd and disgusting waste.

I have paid money for pineapples from fruit and veg markets in a far ‘riper’ state than the one Co-op insisted on throwing in the bin. So if there is a law it is not being practised by all food retailers.

If lobbying for change on this issue is not something you want to pursue, why not give the food away to food banks? Or set up a stall outside your shops and give the food away to passers-by (at their own risk)? Or cook some meals up for those in need?

Given that food prices are rising, people’s standard of living a dropping fast and there is an environmental crisis on the horizon, it beggars belief – yes, I am using the standard ‘Daily Mail Reader’ complaint letter template – that you throw your food away.

I suspect this email will be received and responded to by a complaint handling team in some way integrated with the Co-ops PR activities. Either of the above ideas would not cost the Co-op a bean (although it might put a few to more productive use) but would earn you some good PR. Why not get Holler, or one of the other agencies you contract, to generate a bit of social media interest around the issue.

The Co-op’s finances are in a sorry state at the moment. The one thing it still has is its brand. If you don’t start behaving in an ethical way soon, your brand will be destined for the same place as your out of date food: the bin.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Hugh

Philip Hammond, minister for nest feathering

Arms Governmentality
Arms Governmentality

It is hard not to be sceptical about politicians these days, and Philip Hammond’s comments about cutting welfare ahead of military spending only make it harder. Hammond may be sincere about taking a ‘hard line’ if the government tries to cut military spending, but there can be no doubt that he has feathered his nest nicely for a non-exec role on leaving office.

A while back I came across this report, “The Political Influence of Arms Companies”. Written by a few academics, on behalf of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, the report details the close links that exist between arms companies and ministers. Although written in the early 2000s much of what is written is still relevant, and based on evidence rather than conspiracy theories.

Of particular interest in report is the list of non-exec appointments to arms companies of former defence ministers. Should the report be revisited in five or ten years time, one imagines Philip Hammond will be on the list too. Certainly his comments yesterday can have done his prospects no harm.

Underemployment should be an aspiration

A debate this morning about underemployment on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Today, demonstrated the desperately narrow frame of thinking used by pundits in the mainstream media.

Prompted by ONS statistics due to be released on the phenomena of underemployment, Justin Webb rightly noted that there is an ‘economic story’ and a ‘human story’ to underemployment.

Tackling the economic story was BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders:

“Given the economic climate of the past few years, underemployment could well be seen as preferable as the pain has been shared. But as we move into a period where we look for increased growth and productivity it could well become a problem”

No indication from Flanders that moving towards an economy where we work less hours could conceivably be preferable, necessary even.

No sense that keeping more people in work doing fewer hours could relieve transport congestion, climate change, stress and free-up people to take part in voluntary activities; looking after elderly relatives, etc. That this could ease the burden on public services such as hospitals and care homes. No. Growth = good, according to Flanders. That is all.

Research by NEF shows how reducing the number of hours people work to 21 hours a week could in fact have major benefits across a range of social, economic and environmental problems being experienced today. The problem, of course, and the reason most commentators fail to even consider such a scenario is because the inevitable question arises: how could people live on so little?

Yet this is not a winning argument. It merely points to the lack of political imagination. It is rarely if ever considered in mainstream political debate that wages are simply too low, in general, and why this might be so.

Back in the 1930s there was a fertile debate about wages and unemployment sparked by the Social Crediters and, in particular, the movement’s intellectual leader, Clifford Hugh Douglas. A thought-provoking comment from C.H. Douglas at that time notes that far from unemployment being something to be feared it should be an aspiration for a technologically-advanced society.

This line of thinking so runs against the grain of ‘conventional wisdom’ presented in the media that at first it seems ridiculous. Until you think about it and begin to recognise, as NEF and others have done, that working fewer hours is a logical consequence of living in a technologically advanced, overpopulated society – that achieving ‘full employment’ is an impossible and dangerous task. As Robert Anton Wilson put it succinctly: “unemployment is not a disease… so there is no cure”

The fault of this narrow line of thinking lies more with Labour than the Conservatives, as it happens. The fertile ideas of C.H Douglas and others in the Guild Socialist movement of the Thirties were crushed by the Fabians, then coming to prominence in the Labour party, as their subscriptions and supporter base relied on people being in work. So while the Fabians sought to improve working conditions and wages for the employed, self-interest meant advocating ‘not working’ as an aspiration was anathematic.

Critics of Social Crediter ideas claim implementing a social credit (or national dividend) would be inflationary. This is debateable – Douglas’ ideas have never been implemented fully (the ‘Alberta Experiment’ in Canada was only partially implemented and deemed unsatisfactory by the man himself) Indeed, that these more ‘offbeat’ ideas are not being debated is the problem being flagged up here. Moreover, focusing solely on inflation has its own downsides.

The hawkish position adopted on inflation since the Eighties did not help economists and policy makers to see the financial crisis coming; it was in fact part of what blinded them. A read of Bank of England chief, Mervyn King’s 2004 letter to then-head of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, demonstrates this.

Chiding those ‘who are too young to belong to the inflation generation’, King advocates Greenspan’s price-stability approach. Despite ‘house prices rising at 25% per annum’ King claims it is impossible to predict a bubble and, besides, the BofE’s job is to ‘mitigate the fallout when it occurs’ – emphasis added to show the clear moral hazard created by King in 2004.

Whatever the truth behind claims that a social credit would be inflationary; it is not part of NEF’s proposals. NEF and other groups, such as Positive Money, are more interested in other aspects of C.H. Douglas’ work, also written about by Irving Fisher, Hyman Minsky, Milton Freidman, Steve Keen and others at various points – the credit-creation capabilities of banks.

It is beyond the scope of this post to go into detail about each author/group’s proposals – all are different. But all believe that the fractional reserve system of banking has a distorting effect on the economy leading to speculative bubbles, and, for Positive Money and NEF at least, an upwards movement of wealth toward those at the top of society.

The Today Programme feature ended with what Justin Webb coined the ‘human side’ of the underemployment story. Two workers, one with a post-graduate qualification working part-time in a cinema, the other a ‘copywriter’ on PAYE (likely meaning employed by one of the content farms that proliferate online at present), both of whom are struggling to pay bills and, as Webb repeatedly emphasised, ‘want to work more’.

The copywriter’s final comment summed up all that was wrong with the debate and the way it was framed. In a tone of desperation, when asked by Justin Webb what she hoped might happen in the future, she said:

“I’m just hoping I might be able to take a holiday at some point… or just a weekend off”

To which Justin Webb chuckled in knowing agreement, thereby ending the segment.

Yes, he seemed to say, ‘working seven days a week and still unable to make ends meet – that’s the nature of being underemployed in a recession’. But is it? As the links in this post demonstrate, and as a line of intellectual thinking that goes back to the 1930s and likely beyond demonstrates, scraping by in precarious employment in order to make ends meet is not an inevitability. It is a symptom of the way the financial system is currently structured.

Those proposing genuine alternatives therefore deserve a space at the debate – if only so that their ideas can be scrutinised rigorously, adapted or discarded if needs be. Few of the groups proposing more ‘radical’ ideas claim they have the solution – only that they want to spark a wide-ranging discussion about future policy.

The despair felt by the two ‘underemployed’ guests on the show perhaps speaks of a burning desire in all of us to be active, but equally it could demonstrate the stigma attached to being underemployed and broke in a society that, as Douglas and NEF suggest, would do as well to see some un[der]employment as an aspiration.

Getting a grip on ‘get a grip’ soundbites

There is one phrase near-ubiquitous in UK politics at the moment: “get a grip”. Let’s look at just a handful of examples from the past few weeks. Each of the following was the lead paragraph for a political news story:

“New Culture Secretary Maria Miller has been urged by her own party’s MEPs to “get a grip” on high-speed communications technology vital for the country’s economic growth. A letter from 20 Tory members of the European Parliament says…” MSN 28/10/12

“The BBC’s acting director general has vowed to “get a grip” following the resignation of George Entwistle over a Newsnight report on child abuse claims. Tim Davie said he had…” BBC News 12/11/12

“Conservative MPs have told David Cameron to “get a grip” and halt a string of unforced errors that have blown his Government off course. They urged him to…” Independent 22/10/12

“RenewableUK, the trade and professional body representing the wind, wave and tidal energy industries, is urging the Prime Minister to get a firmer grip on energy policy, after two Conservative MPs, including the Energy Minister John Hayes, sought to undermine the renewables sector. Last night on Channel 4 News…” Politics Home 14/11/12

The bidding process for the West Coast Main Line franchise is a “fiasco”, according to Ed Miliband. The Labour leader said that David Cameron needed to “get a grip” on an “incompetent government.” The government has…” BBC News 14/10/12

Okay, so you get the idea. These quotes represent the tip of the ‘get a grip’ iceberg. Perhaps it’s just me. Maybe I have gone through life until recently without realising the sheer ubiquity of the ‘get a grip’ phrase – but could there be other reasons that it is appearing so regularly? Rarely in politics is a line repeated this often done so by chance.

I first noticed ‘get a grip’ when Ed Miliband began using it against David Cameron. Other Labour MPs then began incorporating it into their repertoire. It was shortly after the ‘pastygate’ nonsense and there had been a spate of coverage about David Cameron’s upper class background; how he and George Osborne were ‘out of touch’ with ordinary voters.

It doesn’t require a huge leap of imagination to move from ‘out of touch’ to ‘get a grip’: if someone needs to ‘get a grip’ they are in a sense ‘out of touch’. And there were other lines using a tactility frame too. A favourite of Miliband’s around this time, since used by Cameron and others, was: ‘he just doesn’t get it’.

It seemed what the Labour spinners had dreamt up was a line or three – to be repeated as many times as possible – to reinforce the idea of a lack of physical connection between David Cameron, George Osborne and the voter. I say ‘seemed’ as since then anyone and everyone has been accused of needing to ‘get a grip’, as the quotes make clear. The context it is being used in now is more traditional: suggesting incompetence on the part of the accused, an inability to control whatever it is they are supposed to be controlling.

The uptake and usage of this line may well simply be for the reasons suggested above (minus the whole tactility theme): pollsters find the line ‘resonates’ well with focus groups. Perhaps politicians think it sounds ‘real’, whatever that means. I’m never sure. It also has the advantage of being so unspecific that it can be readily applied to almost any situation.

But I wonder if there are not other reasons. When I hear the phrase being repeated almost daily by politicians it brings to mind the sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘liquid’ series, in which he attributes a whole range of social phenomena to the increasing speed and uncertainty of our day-to-day lives.

Perhaps the reason ‘get a grip’ polls well, if indeed it does (I’m only speculating after all), is because people’s lives do feel increasingly out of their control. Plans can rarely be made with any certainty. Pensions collapse, house prices rise and fall, unemployment is an ever-present fear. Even in relationships we are encouraged to keep chopping and changing in the futile quest for perfection.

And then there is technology, of course – technology, supposed to free us from the need to work. But as many studies show working hours have in fact increased as technology such as internet-enabled phones have become more widespread. One of Bauman’s central points is that in the modern world distinctions between work and leisure time are blurring.

One could argue, then, that politicians are right to notice that ‘get a grip’ polls well, that it appears to resonate with voters, that it feels real. But rather than seeking political and economic solutions to help people retain more control of their lives, or at least feel that they do, ‘get a grip’ becomes the latest line to be used in knockabout party politics.

The irony of course is that in so doing, in seeking to prove that their rivals are out of touch or incompetent, politicians simply become ever more disconnected from the electorates. And in this sense, they really do need to get a grip.

Lessons for Leveson from Channel 4’s launch?

What with the Newsnight fiasco at the BBC, two media-related stories have largely dipped under the news radar these past couple of weeks. The first is the Leveson inquiry, due to release its findings in the next fortnight or so. The second was the anniversary of Channel 4’s launch, the broadcaster 30 years old last week.

So what does Channel 4 have to do with the Leveson inquiry? Well, the launch of Channel 4 could be highly instructive for thinking about how to fund the type of public interest investigative journalism lacking in the national press at present.

Launched on 2nd November 1982, Channel 4 was funded initially by ITV companies, who were then allowed to sell advertisements on the new channel. Channel 4 still retained a public service remit, and continues to do so to this day. In other words, parliament legislated that ITV – which enjoyed monopolistic status in terms of broadcast advertising at the time – help subsidise minority interest television in the public interest.

Academics, such as James Curran of Goldsmiths, are suggesting that a similar piece of legislation could help reverse the trend of ever decreasing funds being invested in investigative journalism. And this matters. After all, investigative journalism – holding those in power to account – is the primary argument in favour of press freedom.

The problem is that newspapers are nowhere near as profitable as they once were. Since the launch of Google AdWords in 2000, the ‘paid for search’ category has leeched ever increasing amounts of revenue from newspapers reliant on classified advertising to fund their operations. This has hit the national press hard but the regional press – often where the seeds of future national stories are uncovered – even harder.

Google’s advertising revenue surpassed ITV in 2008, and in 2010 stood at $28.2bn. In the UK ‘paid for search’ accounts for £6 of every £10 spent on online advertising, and Google holds 60% of the UK market. In other words, Google –a content parasite rather than producer – now operates a similar monopoly in terms of advertising subsidy that was enjoyed by ITV back in the early 1980s.

Curran proposes a form of top-slicing. 1% of Google’s UK AdWords revenue would be used to seed organisations solely focused on investigative journalism, such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ).

BIJ and others like it have done a remarkably good job of holding power to account on meagre budgets. Moreover, its reports investigate typically hard-to-penetrate industries such as finance and defence, rarely investigated in any depth by the national press. Rather like wiki-leaks, the BIJ uses tie-ups with national newspapers who buy the story fully-packaged once it is ready.

This type of investigative outsourcing makes a great deal of sense, particularly given the amount of data that is online. Often what investigative reporting now requires is the technical ability to mine data, or simply the patience to sift through PDFs and piece together details. The type of person attracted to this work often differs from the network-of-contacts-building journalist adept at getting off-the-record comments from high-profile figures.

So despite the attack currently being mounted on public service broadcasting in the wake of the Newsnight ‘scandal’, Leveson would do well to look closely at Curran and other’s proposals and advise in favour of legislation that evolves the journalistic model into one fit for the 21st Century. Channel 4’s funding model can serve as a useful lesson for ensuring those in power continue to be held to account.

Image via Edmond Wells