Big Business vs Big Ideas

Labour’s determination to please the corporations is stifling political debate

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 15th May 2001

If Gordon Brown was serious yesterday about creating an environment for “business dynamism” like that of the United States, he could do no better than to champion the entrepreneurial work of Conwy Council in North Wales. Conwy has done as all business people advocate, and turned its liabilities into assets.

Like every local authority in Britain, it was faced with demands for money it did not possess. Among its liabilities were a secondary school in Llandudno in urgent need of modernisation, and a piece of land which no one wanted to buy. In the best business tradition, it has decided to resolve its two problems into a single opportunity. Rather than rebuilding the school on its existing site, it will sell the property to the superstore chain Asda/Walmart, for a rumoured £20 million, and move the school onto the unwanted land.

The land is unwanted because part of it is a toxic tip. It contains arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium, asbestos and, according to the Environment Agency, “explosive levels of methane”. Interestingly, the council justifies its decision to move the school on the grounds of health and safety: it would be dangerous, it claims, for children to go to classes on the old site while their buildings were being renovated. While dumping the school on a toxic tip is better for the children’s health, selling the old site to Walmart will allow US business dynamism to flourish, sweeping away the unamerican economy sustained by Llandudno’s scores of small shops.

Though Mr Brown may not be aware of Conwy’s luminous example, the press conference he held yesterday suggests that we’re likely to see rather more entrepreneurship of this kind: Labour, he announced, will change the planning laws to make the approval of major developments “quicker and easier”.

This means, of course, less time for such old-fashioned activities as public consultation. The government has already proposed that special “orders” should be issued, authorising big developments without the need for “unnecessary speculation and debate at … planning inquiries”: the issues, its consultation paper suggests, should be “settled” before the public has the chance to interfere. Business, on the other hand, will be helped by the government “to become more closely involved in the planning process.”

So we shouldn’t be too surprised to see among the signatories of a letter in the Times yesterday, exhorting the British electorate to vote Labour, the former chief executive of Asda/Walmart, Allan Leighton. His sentiments are shared, the letter shows us, by the heads of arms, construction and private health corporations, as well as the chairman of Kelda, one of the UK’s most controversial water companies, which last year sought to transfer £1.4 billion of debt to its customers. If I had supporters like this, I would ask them to keep quiet about it. Instead, determined to prove that it is “economically competent”, Labour is showing off its new friends at every opportunity. Tony Blair’s first public engagement since launching the election campaign was a meeting yesterday with business people in Coventry.

Labour’s problem, in seeking to persuade big business not to defect to the Tories, is that it has already given away just about everything it can lay hands on. Britain, Gordon Brown has boasted, now has “the lowest rate in the history of British corporation tax, the lowest rate of any major country in Europe and the lowest rate of any major industrialised country anywhere, including Japan and the United States.” Corporate executives have been appointed to the cabinet and hundreds of quangos. Most of the assets of the state are quietly being privatised by means of the private finance initiative. The better regulation taskforce, which was supposed to defend workers and consumers from the erosion of standards by big business lobbying, has been handed to the head of Northern Foods.

But the more they take, the more the corporations seem to want. On Sunday, Digby Jones, director-general of the CBI, warned that the lowest corporate taxes in the industrialised world are so onerous that British companies might soon start moving abroad. “The UK planning system,” he charged, “is failing the country at every level”. He’s right, of course, but for the opposite reasons to the ones he cites. But, as JK Galbraith observed, “the complaints of the privileged are too often confused with the voice of the masses”. The government remains convinced that what is good for Asda/Walmart is good for all of us.

The political costs of corporate power are subtle, diffuse and momentous. It is impossible to be the party of both big business and big ideas. Retaining the confidence of the corporations means curtailing attempts at social reform and environmental protection. It means managing change, rather than initiating it. Above all it means excluding from the political agenda most of the key areas of public policy.

The inconsequential issue of saving the planet is confined to the political margins. When even the government’s feeble climate change levy is condemned as a disproportionate assault on business, then any talk about eliminating fossil fuels entirely must be stifled before it begins. Lionel Jospin’s new proposal for a European rate of corporation tax would prevent companies from threatening, as Digby Jones has done, to leave the country unless taxes are further reduced. But it has to be dismissed before it can even be discussed.

The private finance initiative, which almost everyone in politics privately agrees is a disaster, is out of bounds. No one in government dares to question the creeping privatisation of our schools, the corporate sponsorship of the police, domination of agricultural policy by the National Farmers’ Union, the Competition Commission’s failure to regulate the superstores, the construction companies’ grip on the department of environment, or the quiet agreement formulated by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton to reduce all regulations on either side of the Atlantic to the lowest common denominator.

To keep faith with the corporations, the government has had to gag itself and gag our representatives. The control freakery of Number 10, the liberal use of the whip and the refusal to ban the private funding of political parties all testify to the power of big business. This diplomatic silence spreads inexorably to the press: if an issue does not divide the parties, it’s of no interest to reporters.

There is, in other words, a conflict between the business dynamism of the kind that Gordon Brown seeks to encourage and the political dynamism which guarantees the survival of a democratic system. The key electoral choice we should be making when we go to the polls next month — the choice between democracy and plutocracy — will not be presented to us by the major parties. We can vote out the management, but we can’t vote out the firm.