Supermarket Sweep

A few years ago the Liberals tried to introduce a plastic bag tax, a simple way of introducing an innocuous environmental measure that had been a big success in Ireland. A few pennies made behaviour change happen. It was opposed at Holyrood by Labour. A few weeks back Labour the Tories and the Liberals sought political advantage over public health and wrecked well thought-through plans for trying to tackle Scotland’s over consumption of alcohol. Labour’s shadow health spokesman Jackie Baillie and Richard Baker subsequently received crates of beer from Peroni in thanks for their good work on behalf of big business.

Today B&Q joined the chorus of big business bleating about the proposed ‘supermaket levy’ (or large retailers’ levy). The protests were flagged in advance by Eddie Barnes of the Scotsman and true to form they are a gathering force, with all the main opposition parties due to oppose the plans to tax big business. The Scottish Green Party want to improve the bill but seem oddly half-hearted on the issue.

Business rates are expected to be set at 42.6p in the pound for all UK companies next year. But for any Scottish property valued at more than £2.1m, an SNP government would take a supplement of 15p in the pound.

John Swinney announced he was sticking to his plans after meeting representatives of the Scottish Grocery Retailers Forum, an umbrella organisation that included representatives of Marks & Spencer, Asda, Next, Sainsbury, Waitrose, Debenhams, Morrisons and the Scottish Retail Consortium.

This in the context of last months defeat of an attempt to act in the public interest and restrict alcohol consumption by introducing a minimum pricing scheme that was backed by all serious health experts, GPS and researchers. It was opposed by the joint unionist parties despite the mountain of evidence that beer was being sold cheaper than water, that drunk children are treated in our hospitals and that violent crime is overwhelmingly alcohol fuelled.

The case presents a test case for not just the SNP Govt – rightly criticised for caving in to Trump and being ‘under the influence’ of big business like Brian Soutar – but for the body politic. This is about who makes decisions and what influence the elected government can wield. As one poster put it ‘I didn’t vote ASDA or TESCO’.

These people wield huge amounts of economic power. Take Tesco. They now control over 30% of the grocery market in the UK. In 2010, the supermarket chain announced profits of £3.4bn. Growing evidence indicates that Tesco’s success is partly based on trading practices that are having serious consequences for suppliers, farmers and workers worldwide, local shops and the environment.

Their profits come from reducing operational costs, and a key one of those is labour. And they act like giant economic vacuum cleaners, hoovering wealth out of an area. By contrast, money spent in locally owned, embedded enterprises is more likely to stick and re-circulate. And conventional street markets often provide cheaper fresh fruit and vegetables.

It’s worse than that though. Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation has written: “The “sense of pride” on offer is hard to square with a study in the United States which revealed that the arrival of a Wal-Mart (think Asda) in a community leads to fewer people voting – a civic disengagement. The big store’s negative impact on other local enterprises destroys social capital, dissolving the glue which holds communities together. Other research reveals that community relationships wither because people have fewer conversations when they shop in supermarkets.

None of this should come as a surprise. Democracy Distorted has tracked the impact and influence of big business on politics. At the last election Tesco gave £17k to Labour in sponsorship and £6k to the Liberals. Asda gave nearly £15k to Labour and £7k in sponsorship to the Conservatives. This is the money we know about.

This isn’t an anti-buisness rant.

According to the Federation of Small Businesses, nearly three-quarters of small-to-medium sized stores believe the levy would level the playing field and help them compete against larger supermarkets.

They claim 86% of the entire £30m take would be paid by the four biggest supermarket chains — Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s.

Or take another example out of 365 on Aberdeen’s Union Street, just two will be hit by the new tax. In other words this is about taxing the mega-profits a little where it won’t hurt. Yet because of the climate of deregulation created by Labour, they will wail and weep and tell us they will ‘go elsewhere’. Go.

Nor is this about the SNP. This is about how we create sustainable ways to produce distribute and consume food.

Some of supermarkets’ environmental costs include:

  • The food industry is responsible for a third of greenhouse gas emissions and therefore has a massive part to play in tackling climate change. The bulk of these emissions come from food production. Research by Friends of the Earth has shown that low prices have reduced farmers’ ability to produce food in environmentally friendly ways. This needs to stop.
  • Fewer local farmers and shops mean both customers and goods need to be transported further. This means more pollution from cars, as people drive further to shop, and more pollution from aircraft and lorries, as food is transported from around the world. Indeed Tesco’s business could be seen as one of the drivers behind the rise in UK CO2 emissions.
  • Supermarket sizes means they are some of the most energy-inefficient buildings in the retail sector. A Sheffield Hallam University study found that despite the new stock, large superstores are the most energy inefficient buildings in the sector. It would take more than 60 corner shops and greengrocers to match the carbon dioxide emissions from one average sized superstore.
  • A large amount of food is being wasted. On average consumers through away a third of the food they buy in any one week trip to a supermarket. Why is this? Basically people are conned into buying stuff they don’t need.

As Labour the Tories and the Liberals line up to put the boot into the SNP remember it’s your local economy they are consigning to history.

This is about whether we can  control big business, because despite M&S BS, there is no Plan A.

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  1. Well said. I think your supplement figure is askew though, I think it’s only 0.7p in the pound rather than 15p.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks for the correction

  2. C.Graves says:

    A fantastic article! And as with many such articles, a strange mix of the very depressing, and the invigoratingly challenging.

  3. paul thomson says:

    Aye- well said. Media ethics- wise: There is also a rediculous amount of: media framing; biased editorial cooking of the story using the following: a large spoon of framing, a sprinkle of looping and and a squeeze of lazy hyperlinking – to weight the story towards the superpowers that be:

  4. Kevin Brown says:

    Good article Mike.
    Just read Calum’s latest article and gobsmacked at the hypocrisy of the supermarkets and msm.
    I have to be honest; I was not aware that we were just re-aligning the rate with the English. That message needs to get out there!

  5. bellacaledonia says:

    This whole debate should also be put in the context of this 60 bn surplus from False Economy:

  6. Indy says:

    It’s a fuss about nothing. Labour’s strategy is just to oppose everything the SNP do, no matter what. This is in reality a fairly minor budget adjustment and not worth anything like the attention that is being devoted to it. It makes me wonder if Labour are deliberately trying to bring about an early election so they can take advantage of their position in the polls while avoiding or minimising proper scrutiny of their policies – or the lack of them. If that is the case they must be barking mad as they would pretty quickly be exposed as clueless once elected.

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