One Direction vs a FTSE 100 company - which is more "grossly immoral"?

Surely Vince Cable wouldn't take a swipe at a fellow tousle-haired scamp like Harry Styles.

Vince Cable’s swift denial of claims that he attacked the pay of One Direction in a debate yesterday was a great bit of crisis aversion. After various commentators claimed that he’d responded to a question about the boyband’s alleged £5m per member pay packet with an attack on their "grossly immoral" earnings, aides were quick to clarify that he’d misheard the question. He was talking about the issue of executive pay.

The jury’s out on whether he actually knew what he was saying or not, but it’s easy to get confused between the band and a FTSE 100 company. Both One Direction and WPP, for example, were created by a sinister orange puppet master for the purpose of world domination. For my part, I think it unlikely Vince would want to take a swipe at a fellow outspoken, tousle-haired scamp like Harry Styles.

The point is it doesn’t matter. Whether the line was a smokescreen or a clarification, it was the right choice, and that is infuriating. The British public (or at least that rabid segment of it represented on Twitter) seemed satisfied with Cable’s explanation. Attacks from directioners are disappointingly few. So why are we happy to indiscriminately lash out at the inflated pay packets of the suits while letting the quiffs keep their cocaine summer houses and personal fleets of ice cream trucks?

It’s true that executive pay is an important issue. According to the FT, the median pay of a FTSE 100 chief exec has risen 266 per cent since 2000, while that of the average worker has risen a mere 40 per cent. Perhaps this direct and rather alarming comparison between the pay of CEOs and those of us at the bottom makes anger easier to come by.

While last year’s "shareholder spring" was a step in the right direction - a third of FTSE 100 CEOs who have disclosed their salary for 2013 have frozen their pay -  this year may be quieter. Despite outspoken opposition from Standard Life’s Guy Jubb, BP’s remuneration report passed last week with 93 per cent of shareholders in favour. 

However, there is a qualitative difference between the pay of a pop star and the pay of many executives. One Direction’s pay is, more or less, reflective of how much money they bring in for their label and management. Doubtless, they do this well, and they deserve to see much of that money. However, a Chief Executive generally has additional considerations knocking around his or her less photogenic head. As Jonathan Guthrie pointed out last week, BP’s Bob Dudley has to meet objectives in thirteen categories to get his bonus. One of them is "upstream major project delivery". Surely the man deserves a few thou for even knowing what that means.

The concern is that CEOs are being dragged into bash a banker hoo ha hour - post-crisis Britain’s favourite entertainment show. If the main swell of the pay debate ceases to be conducted along reasonable lines, CEOs won’t listen even to reasonable objections. Many of them earn too much, and few if any of them have the bewitching charm of Zayn Malik, but we should acknowledge that CEOs do a complicated job, and remuneration needs to account for that in a manner which is satisfactory for both sides.

Photograph: Getty Images

Josh Lowe is a freelance journalist and communications consultant. Follow him on Twitter @jeyylowe.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle