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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.