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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Young voters lost the referendum but they still deserve a future

It's time to stop sneering at "crap towns" and turn them into places young people want to stay. 

What a horror show. A land-slide 75 per cent of young people voted in favour of Europe. The greater numbers of the over 65s met that force with 61 per cent against. Possibly the greatest divide in our country turned out to be not gender, not race, not even party politics, but age. The old and the young faced off about how to run our country, and the young lost. 
 
What have we done to our future? Well, whatever happens now, leadership is required. We can’t afford to have the terms of the debate dictated by Brexiters who looked as shocked at the mess they have made as Stronger-Inners are distraught. We can’t afford to wallow either. Young people across this country today are feeling worried and let down – failed by all of us - because when their future was on the line, we were unable to secure it. We – those who believe we achieve more by our common endeavour - all feel that deep worry, and all share in that shame.

How we should all rue the choice not to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote. And quickly re-ignite the campaign for votes at 16.

But young people don’t need our worry or our pity or our shame. They need a better chance and we need to give them one. I believe passionately that the future for this country was as a leader in Europe, but that does not mean we give up on our future now. For Labour, the challenge now is to work out how we can build a better future for all our people and communities. The sky has not fallen. The UK is still a rich country.

Beat recession with better housing

Let’s start with housing and development. It is no longer good enough to simply set targets with no possibility of meeting them. The housing crunch has killed off the chance of owning a home for many young people, and left thousands at the mercy of cripplingly expensive rent.  The housing market is broken and we need to build much faster in high growth areas like London and Manchester at the same time investing in restoring low quality housing in our northern towns, in Scotland, Wales and in Northern Ireland. 

In policy terms, we should be asking the Local Government Association, the Infrastructure Commission, and the construction industry itself, to collaborate on a counter-Brexit house building plan with a focus on areas where there is a clear market failure. We could get a champion of industry and construction such as my old Network Rail boss, Sir John Armitt, to be in charge, and lead a national mission to build and rebuild homes.

In the last parliament, Osborne first tried the "tighten our belts" approach to speeding up growth. He failed, and then tried plan B: investment for growth. Now we have the possibility of another recession on the cards and may well need to use investment to stop our economy grinding to a halt. Now - or possibly sooner - would be an excellent time for a national building project like this housing plan.

Stop sneering at "crap towns"

On economic development, it is clear that Labour needs a strategy for giving our northern towns an economic future and linking them up with the modern economy. When cities grow, and towns fall behind, those towns are a breeding ground for frustration. This is not just about cuts, it is about the uneven distribution of the benefits of globalisation. The Brexit vote was centred around areas that justifiably feel they have lost from the last decades. We need to make sure they win from the years ahead.

For far too long, there has been a sneering "crap towns" attitude. These places can offer good housing, community, and a decent life. But the problem there is work. In many of our towns, there is too little to do that can offer a young person a career tomorrow as well as a shift today.

Because, as it happens, the biggest driver of low pay tends to be skill level, not immigration. 

Teach the skills we need

Of course we should stop exploitation of migrant workers who undercut others. Let's tell firms that use exploitative agencies they can't work for the Government. But you can’t raise wages without changing the structure of the labour market. It’s not just about replacing one set of workers with another - you have to raise the level of wages that those workers can command. Because the truth about work in too many places is that most of the jobs available are either those with the low status of care work (though it may be highly-skilled work), or industries with a high volume of low-skilled work such as retail and hospitality. But from there, there’s nothing to move on to. The brain drain to cities has consequences.

Leaving Europe will shut off economic opportunity across the country to many young people.  Frankly, we owe it to them to work like demons to offer them something better closer to home.

We need a social partnership for skills and work. The Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress working together to deliver an urgent plan for training and career progression in the towns with stagnant labour markets and low skills. We need to find a way to stop the brain drain that sucks the talent out of the places that need it the most, using the experience of programmes like Teach First. When the best people feel they have no reason to return to where they grow up, it is both a sign of a deep problem and also demoralising evidence of decline for those left behind.

And our new metro-mayors must pay as much attention to the towns in their region as well as the city centre. No one left out, no one’s local shops lying empty whilst a city down the road flourishes. And no schools failing, either.

It is undeniable that people voted for change in the referendum. The problem is that the change they voted for will do little to solve the problems they face. Labour’s role is not just to point this out, but to offer a vision of real meaningful change. 

Not easy, perhaps. But one thing is for certain, mouthing platitudes about "hearing concerns"and offering only symbolic gestures has been tested to destruction. People deserve better and we need to offer it to them.

Alison McGovern is the Labour MP for Wirral South

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South.