The milk blockade is part of a far crueller story

It's just an episode in a scandalous, decades-long tale of corporate greed.

Every couple of years the papers run a story about the food in your local supermarket. It goes like this: you know that Lochmuir Salmon you get in Marks and Spencer? Well, turns out Lochmuir isn’t a crystal-clear lake near Edinburgh, populated by ginger-haired men in rowing boats, catching ethically-sourced salmon in small nets.

In fact, there’s no such place as Lochmuir: it’s just a brand name, chosen by a panel of consumers. The salmon’s actually farmed on an industrial scale at various sites around Scotland, by a supplier called Scottish Sea Farms.

Having revealed this and other similar tricks (Tesco’s Willow Farm, home of its chickens, is just a bunch of barns across the country, for example), the journalists generally shrug their shoulders. But it’s where the story begins. Because the idea is to give the impression of “local” food from a guaranteed source: products that have, in recent years, exploded in popularity. And the fact they only want to give this impression helps illustrate a scandalous, decades-long tale of corporate greed.

Unlike the bankers at RBS and other institutions, it didn’t financially imperil the country. Many of those who suffered weren’t the kind of people journalists care about. But in terms of pure, callous, blood-soaked capitalism, you’d do well to find a more nauseating story.

Let’s rewind the clock a couple of decades. Between 1990 and 1996, the number of independent shops with annual sales of less than £100,000 declined by 36 per cent. Over an equivalent period, the number of superstores in Britain more than doubled, to over 1,000. A 1998 report by the now-defunct Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions made an explicit link between the two figures. It said some food shops lost up to 50% of trade when a supermarket opened.

This, we’re told, was simply the market in action: customers getting what they wanted. But you have to ask why customers got what they wanted so quickly, while no provision was made for those who’d be left behind by this brave new world.

The answer in the first instance is that corporations know how to grease the wheels of local government. In one town alone -  Seaton in Devon - Tesco offered a package including a visitor centre, football pitches and buses. For the people of Witney, it offered to build a new main road.

And the supermarkets exerted even more influence at a national level – quite apart from the number of supermarket execs on government task forces over the years, one need only look at the 13 meetings Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury held with Department for Business, Innovation and Skills ministers and officials between 2008 and 2009: years when their stores were springing up at a rate of nearly one a day.

“But the superstores create jobs!” was the mantra, churned out by the companies themselves and rarely challenged by the government, despite a 1998 report by the National Retail Planning Forum that found evidence the superstores had a negative net impact on employment up to 15km away.

It’s hardly rocket science. Your local butcher might well be less efficient than a supermarket, but he’s more likely to buy his meat from a local farm, use a local builder for maintenance jobs, and spend his profits in the local economy.

This caused untold damage to the social fabric of our small towns and cities, but was as nothing compared to that wrought on food suppliers. Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrisons have now taken control of nearly 80 per cent of British food retail. Your out- of-town supermarket controls a local monopoly, and it’s most effective for it to buy most of its produce from a small number of large farms.

And all this has had a heavy impact on the two million people in rural Britain living below the poverty line, and, according to last month’s Observer, to the 3,000 small and medium-scale farmers in Britain put in poverty or out of business over the past decade.

I have my journalistic case study; but it’s one I can’t bear to write about in detail. He was a close friend of a friend, and he died by his own hand. Was his depression purely a result of his financial worries? No doubt it could be spun that way. Such things are impossible to quantify. All we know is: they have an impact. Governmental figures from the 1990s revealed that farmers were nearly twice as likely to commit suicide as the rest of the general population, and one shudders to think what results a similar survey would reveal today

And what of the “lucky” farmers who do supply the supermarkets? They have nowhere else to go, and so the stores can specify any number of conditions over the meat or crops they supply. Supermarkets can set whatever price they like, until the farmer’s business folds, whereupon they’ll find a new supplier.

“You won’t hear a word from the farmers on record,” says Jeanette Longfield, coordinator of Sustain, a charity that campaigns for better food and farming. “The simple fact is they’re scared to come forward, because they know they’ll be punished.”

This month we’ve seen an uncharacteristically coordinated response to the supermarkets’ sharp practises, with farmers taking to Westminster and blockades of milk plants around the country. But this is one of many occasions over the last couple of decades when the supermarkets have overstepped the mark.

“This issue comes up time and again,” says Longfield, “Milk, unlike other products, is hard to transport, so you’d think the farmers would have bargaining power. But the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has historically seemed either unable or unwilling to unionise their members.” And indeed, many have asked whether the NFU can really be called a union at all, such is its close relationship with government.

All this pain, we’re told, is worth it for low food prices. Some will point the finger of blame at producers like Dairy Crest. But Andrew Hemming of Farmers For Action this morning left Radio 4 listeners in no doubt as to the culpability of the supermarkets in putting pressure on them. The prices paid by the supermarkets – some less than the cost of production – must be seen in the context of a world in which they’ve quadrupled their profits on every litre in the last 15 years. As Longfield says: “Would consumers even notice a few pence extra on the price of their milk? People gladly pay more for bottled water. It’s madness.”

A common belief is that the farmers are all subsidised by the European Union, so none of this really matters. “It’s not that simple,” says Longfield. “Due to the complexity of the Common Agricultural Policy regime, large farms will work the system to their advantage. The subsidies often don’t benefit the smaller farms.”

The impotence of politics in the face of big business is highlighted by how long it’s taken for any kind of legislation to appear that might stymie this lunacy. It only materialised, in fact, because, in 2006 the Office of Fair Trading made a reference to the Competition Commission after a court case involving Action Aid and the Association of Convenience Stores. The resulting report in 2008 proposed a better code of practise enforced by an ombudsman. The resulting Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill is at its third reading in the House of Lords.

Michael Hutchings, a solicitor who has advised the grocery market on the inquiry, says: “By this point competition policy was supposed to be politically independent and in the hands of the OFT and Competition Commission, but as we saw with Lloyds/HBOS – and more recently BSkyB - the government was happy to fudge the decision.

“All the details have been decided and have cross party support – it just needs a stroke of a statutory pen. Instead we’re getting long parliamentary debates in the Lords. One peer wants to give retailers the right to go to court before reports into them are published – the adjudicator won’t have the hundreds of thousands of pounds required to fight a case like that.”

Despite this, Hutchings still expects the bill to be passed without being watered down too much: “An adjudicator will have two jobs – first to arbitrate disputes between the two – this won’t really happen because the producers are scared. But more importantly, to carry out generic investigations, which will have an impact. The important thing is that the bill starts with the principle of fair dealing. Most industries do work fairly, because you don’t have such an imbalance of power between producer and supplier. This is a special case.”

 

Supermarkets can set whatever price they like for farmers' produce. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Why haven't we heard more about the allegations of Tory election fraud?

Police and prosecutors have joined a probe into election fraud allegations that could erase the Tory majority.

The facts

The Conservative Party is facing accusations of breaking election spending rules during its 2015 campaign. Following a Channel 4 investigation, it has admitted to failing to declare more than £38,000 of expenses, money it says was spent on accommodation for Tory activists.

It’s up to the Electoral Commission, which met this week with prosecutors and police forces, to decide whether or not to launch criminal investigations into this spending.

Allegations that the money benefited campaigns in individual seats have put the Tories in hot water – they may have illegally exceeded the constituency-specific spending limit. Making a false spending declaration in an election carries a punishment of up to a year in prison and/or an unlimited fine, and anyone found guilty is also barred from running in a general election or holding any elected office for three years.

But the party claims that, as the money was spent on “BattleBus” activists who were driving around the country, it counts as national spending from HQ, rather than being part of individual candidates’ spending.

The Electoral Commission, Crown Prosecution Service and representatives of 15 police forces met this week to discuss the claims. This has resulted in extra time being allowed (an extension on the 12 months allowed under the Representation of the People Act) for relevant police forces to decide what action to take.

Up to 29 Conservative candidates are thought to have benefitted from “BattleBus” campaigning, many of whom were fighting marginal seats.

As Channel 4’s Michael Crick reported yesterday:

“It will be interesting to see if they actually start naming constituencies where they think offences may have occurred. That would then put elected MPs, Conservative MPs, in the frame.

“And indeed, if they were to look at all the constituencies that we’ve been making allegations about over the last few months, it could actually endanger the government’s majority in the House of Commons.”

The conspiracy claims

So why haven’t we heard about this? It undermines the credibility of the entire Tory general election campaign. The claims could even constitute a scandal that would trigger by-elections across the country and potentially erase the Tory majority. The Tories have a working majority of 18, so if they lost in 18 by-elections (were at least 18 MPs to be found guilty), then they would lose their majority.

Some, particularly online leftwing voices, have accused the media of conspiring not to cover this story. Our rightwing press and the cowardly BBC, they argue, are ignoring a story that could potentially call the Conservative general election victory into question.

Anger about this story being low on the political agenda is understandable. It hasn’t been prominent, considering it could result in prosecutions (indeed, the Devon and Cornwall police force is reportedly already investigating, following its meeting with the Electoral Commission). And if, say, The Sun were a left-leaning paper, it probably would have framed it in a dramatic way that would have grabbed readers’ attention.

But there isn’t a media conspiracy of silence. BBC News has been covering developments since the beginning of the year, including similar claims about 2014 by-elections, and Grant Shapps MP (Conservative chairman during the election) was hauled onto the BBC Daily Politics sofa to respond to the allegations. And the BBC’s Today programme put the allegations to Communities & Local Government Secretary Greg Clark this morning. Channel 4 News has been investigating the story, and breaking developments, from the start. The Mirror has done a big investigation into each of the MPs’ campaigns that have been accused. And all of the main papers have published news reports on the story.

The reason it may seem like silence, or lack of due prominence, is because this is an ongoing investigation. So far there have been no arrests, and the allegations remain just that: allegations. Care is required by media organisations not to falsely accuse anyone of criminal activity. And, pushed by journalists, the Conservatives have given their side of the story, so we’re not going to get a great deal more from them. Now it’s up to police forces to decide to take action.

So far, the only things to report on have been what would and would not count as a breach of electoral law (rather a dry subject), and whether or not the Electoral Commission would achieve an extension on the time allowed by law for investigating (also somewhat technical). And, however dull, these things have been reported. They may not have been shared a huge amount online, or bounced to the top of “most-read” boxes – but this is because readers aren’t usually that interested in the ins and outs of the Representation of the People Act, no matter how much those who want this government toppled wish they were.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.