The mes­sage is loud and clear - peo­ple do want fat cats stopped

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Polly Toyn­bee

No press,” said the PR bar­ring my way. That’s the first time I’ve been turned away from a com­pany AGM, but why am I not sur­prised? This is Mel­rose, the great preda­tor that ate up GKN in an £8bn hos­tile takeover – fi­nan­cial en­gi­neers swal­low­ing up Bri­tain’s third-largest ac­tual en­gi­neer­ing com­pany – be­fore carv­ing it up and sell­ing it off. I go to com­pany AGMs to stare at masters of the uni­verse pay­ing them­selves eye-wa­ter­ing, breath­tak­ing sums. In the one day a year on which they are on pub­lic dis­play, I seek a glim­mer of shame, any blush or blench. But when some ec­cen­tric share­holder ques­tions the size of their swag these masters never bat an eye­lid, un­abashed in their brazen ef­fron­tery. Will the day ever come when Bri­tain looks back in in­credulity at such shame­less fat­cats?

I wanted to eye­ball Christo­pher Miller, the ex­ec­u­tive chair­man, who will re­ceive a bonus of more than £40m, along with three hench­men on sim­i­lar rates. Pen­sions & In­vest­ment Re­search Con­sul­tants, an in­de­pen­dent watch­dog against bad gov­er­nance, had warned share­hold­ers to op­pose Miller’s bonus. I wasn’t there to watch the vote, but a Mel­rose press re­lease popped up an­nounc­ing the board’s re­mu­ner­a­tion was agreed, with no word of the mini-re­volt by 22% of share­hold­ers. Sim­i­lar rip­ples of share­holder protest against megare­mu­ner­a­tion greeted last week’s AGMs at Serco, Rath­bones and Di­rect Line – but all were shrugged off. Odds are that planned ob­jec­tions next week to Shell’s €9m (£7.9m) for a CEO whose com­pany share prices fell this year will fiz­zle out too. For the vic­tors, why let one day’s mild em­bar­rass­ment spoil their plun­der? Be­sides, some­one else is al­ways greed­ier: look at Per­sim­mon’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, tak­ing £75m de­spite an out­cry.

FTSE 100 CEOs pay them­selves more than 120 times as much as an av­er­age UK worker – a gap that has widened by two-thirds in the past 20 years, says Luke Hild­yard of the High Pay Cen­tre. This week the Sun­day Times

Rich List re­vealed their wealth rose by 10% last year.

How un­ruf­fled they will be by last week­end’s TUC rally de­mand­ing a “new deal” on pay. A decade on from the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, real wages are still worth £24 a week less than in 2008, and are not ex­pected to re­turn to pre-crash lev­els un­til 2025, an un­prece­dented 17-year de­cline. The TUC gen­eral sec­re­tary Frances O’Grady’s rous­ing speech protested against “bumper div­i­dends” while wages are cut. “You can’t fill your boots in the board­room and tell work­ers to

tighten their belts. The greed has to stop.” But there is no sign of that. You will look in vain for any re­motely rev­o­lu­tion­ary impulse – be­yond the Brexit con­vul­sion or­ches­trated by Tory mul­ti­mil­lion­aires and their press – in­clud­ing that voice of the peo­ple, the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre, with his Scot­tish deer-stalk­ing es­tate and Sus­sex cat­tle farm.

The strat­egy con­sul­tancy Bri­tain Thinks has just taken the pulse of pub­lic at­ti­tudes to­wards busi­ness, and warns of a rep­u­ta­tional prob­lem: most peo­ple are dis­gusted by ob­scene ex­ec­u­tive pay, by the bil­lions avoided in tax, and by bad treat­ment of em­ploy­ees on zero-hours con­tracts and abysmal pay. Big busi­ness is viewed as ruth­lessly cut-throat.

Po­lit­i­cally, all this should ben­e­fit Labour, with the pub­lic mood in tune with its man­i­festo poli­cies. When tested blind, those poli­cies are highly pop­u­lar – 61% are in favour of a £10 an hour min­i­mum wage, with size­able ma­jori­ties for stronger worker rights and tax rises for the top 5% (those earn­ing over £70,000). Re­na­tion­al­is­ing wa­ter, rail and postal ser­vices are pop­u­lar too.

But here’s the catch: when told that all these are Labour poli­cies, peo­ple back off sharply. How will they pay for it and will Labour rock the boat? Pre­con­cep­tions about Labour’s in­com­pe­tence at run­ning the econ­omy out­weigh their dis­gust with big busi­ness. Peo­ple still say (yes, out­ra­geously) that the Tories res­cued the econ­omy from Labour mis­man­age­ment. De­spite re­vul­sion at ex­ec­u­tive avarice, only 39% back the 20:1 max­i­mum pay ra­tio Labour ad­vo­cates, and only a mea­gre 26% sup­port rais­ing cor­po­ra­tion tax from its present much-re­duced 19% back up to 26%.

They warm to Labour as the nice party, “fair” and “gen­uine” – while they see Tories as elit­ists “out for them­selves” and for the rich. But they think those Tory nasty qual­i­ties are needed to sup­port busi­ness, on which the econ­omy de­pends: af­ter all, four out of five vot­ers are em­ployed by the pri­vate sec­tor. All in all, those sur­veyed give the Tories a 9% lead as the best party to run the econ­omy (and there­fore the coun­try) – a trend found in poll af­ter poll.

That’s what Labour has to over­come, as ever against a hos­tile me­dia tide. Re­mem­ber how hard Tony Blair and Gor­don Brown strug­gled to con­vince vot­ers, lock­ing them­selves into a deadly two-year pub­lic spend­ing freeze, glued to Tory spend­ing plans, vow­ing eter­nal fis­cal pru­dence. But even then, they only man­aged to neu­tralise Labour’s per­ma­nently neg­a­tive eco­nomic rep­u­ta­tion thanks to John Ma­jor’s ex­change rate mech­a­nism fi­asco.

Our cor­rupt po­lit­i­cal sys­tem helps busi­ness to buy elec­tions to pro­tect their loot: of the 50 rich­est UK po­lit­i­cal donors, only one gives to Labour. The shadow chan­cel­lor, John McDon­nell, is on a busi­ness charm of­fen­sive, the same “prawn cock­tail” cir­cuit chased by Tony Blair and Gor­don Brown pre-1997, but he can never re­al­is­ti­cally ex­pect to sway these arch Tories.

Nor does that mat­ter much. It’s or­di­nary vot­ers who need per­suad­ing.

Abus­ing plu­to­crats is po­lit­i­cal fun. Jon Trick­ett, the shadow Cab­i­net Of­fice min­is­ter, was vent­ing at them last week: “Labour will over­turn the rigged econ­omy and bring to a shud­der­ing halt the ob­scene power of the few thou­sand-strong su­per-elite.” Good, say I! Class war! ri­posted the Mail. But when Trick­ett averred, “Peo­ple have had enough of the elite pinch­ing wealth from the pock­ets of work­ing peo­ple,” the trou­ble is that they haven’t re­ally, or not enough of them. There’s no bet­ter time to con­tem­plate Bri­tain’s non-rev­o­lu­tion­ary in­stincts than ob­serv­ing this Satur­day’s royal wed­ding gush. That’s a sharp re­minder that 80% of peo­ple don’t think (as I do) that the monar­chy sym­bol­ises and sanc­ti­fies Trick­ett’s “warped sys­tem in which a su­per­rich elite runs rings round every­one else”.

The Bri­tain Thinks fo­cus groups finds that Labour is strug­gling to cap­i­talise on what is gen­uine pub­lic in­dig­na­tion at cor­po­rate greed. Lan­guage mat­ters

– and Labour hasn’t yet found the right words to con­vince vot­ers it can run an econ­omy that is both com­pe­tent and fair.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY NATHALIE LEES

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