Changing the world takes more than a flash-in-the-pan campaign

Good things come to those who wait.

Changing the world isn’t like an instant weight loss programme. Campaigning to make our surroundings a bit more bearable is not a quick win. Nowadays, if you want to lose weight there is a huge buffet (excuse the food reference) of options available to you, from not eating sugar to the tasty cabbage soup diet. Equally, if you want to change the world there are a host of “quick fix” campaigns.  “Like” this link on Facebook, sign this e-petition or occupy one Vodafone shop on one day for one hour and everything will be just fine.

The problem is that we have evolved at an alarmingly fast rate to want, want, want, now, now, now. Take 38 Degrees' latest campaign to force McDonalds and Coca-Cola not to dodge their Olympics tax. It flew off the shelves like the latest miracle diet pill, getting 165,000 signatures in days and forcing two corporations to pull out of the scheme. One little snag - tax avoidance and the dilemmas of corporate sponsorship have not been won. 38 Degrees is a great tactic and tool for campaigning but it is not the answer to systemic change.

It might, however, be the answer to the public's need for a quick fix campaign that takes five seconds to do. But change doesn’t happen with a few Facebook likes. Just imagine if those 165,000 people actually got up and did something!

Yes, active campaigning is hard, time-consuming and often we won’t see the results in our lifetime, but it’s worth it, right? These days a sustained campaign is one that lasts about three months whereas the suffragette movement lasted about 30 years! 30 years! And women are still fighting for equality.

On the other side, UK Uncut has been fighting the cuts for 21 months and has kids, people with disabilities, single mothers, activists, old aged pensioners and people from varied backgrounds on their actions that happen offline and in real life.

Of course it's nice to be able to pop along for a quick rally or sign a one-off petition, but it's just not enough. Campaigning might not be for everyone, but neither is poverty and injustice. Of course we need balance. A balance between the "quick hit" protest  junkies and those entrenched campaigners that harp on about the same old thing day in and day out.

The key is finding something tangible, real, exciting, new and possibly that captures people’s spirits for the long haul. It’s like exercise and a good diet versus not having carbohydrates for a week; we all know which one is the winner in the long-term.

Molly Solomons is a UK Uncut activist.

 

A woman holds a banner outside a branch of Vodafone in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images
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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.