Swiss aim to tackle high pay through shareholder democracy

You scratch my back, I'll ask the shareholder remuneration committee to vote to scratch yours.

Switzerland has followed the EU and implemented laws designed to curb high pay. But whereas the EU implemented a hard cap which only affected bonuses in the banking industry, the Swiss plan is both more wide-ranging and less heavy-handed in how it operates.

The key change is a requirement that companies give shareholders a binding vote on executive pay. Currently, pay is set by companies' boards, but now that the Swiss people have spoken, in a referendum which achieved a 68 per cent "yes" vote, one of the highest in the country's history, that is going to change.

The move will fight the so-called principal-agent problem, which is common throughout business and politics. In theory, shareholders entrust the board to make the right decisions on executive pay; if higher pay will lead to more value for the shareholders, perhaps by encouraging the best candidates, then the board should support it, but in most situations, the board should endeavour to keep costs down. Unfortunately, while the board members are entrusted by the shareholders to act in their interests, board members also have their own interests — which may conflict.

In this situation, the classic conflict is that a board member for one company may well be an executive for another, and vice versa. They end up in the situation where they are making decisions about the pay of people who make decisions about their pay, and it's not hard to see how that could result in pay going through the roof.

But handing control over to shareholders doesn't remove all principal agent problems. It all depends how institutional shareholders decide to act — and there's reason to believe they may not be much better. If you invest in a pension fund, you technically own several companies. But the right to vote on how those companies are run — and now, in Switzerland, on how much those companies' executives are paid — is held by the pension fund.

Such funds tend to be uncomfortable about exercising too much shareholder democracy. Partly, this is because they fall prey to the same problem that boards do: the executives who decide how to vote have their pay set by other executives voting on remuneration committees, and the whole backscratching saga continues only slightly abated.

But it is also a matter of privilege and viewpoints. Even if there is no chance of reciprocity, a highly paid financial executive is likely to have very different views on the appropriate level of pay for other highly paid financial executives compared to you or I. For shareholder democracy to really deal with high pay in the boardroom, it would need either a massive resurgence in private investors (not the best idea, since that would likely also result in a huge upswing in private investors losing all their money in the stock market) or institutional investors devolving much more say to their members.

The other requirements set by the Swiss referendum are likely to have more direct effects. In requiring annual re-elections for directors, they remove much of the inertia that can keep people in these extremely well-remunerated, largely ceremonial positions for years beyond their time. And in explicitly banning "golden hellos" and "goodbyes", the practice of awarding a large lump sum upon joining or leaving a company, they create a much more stable and manageable system of pay for the shareholders to oversee.

But fundamentally, tackling high pay — and by extension, inequality — requires tackling the fact that the rich choose how much to pay the rich. The best proposal to do that is something similar to the suggestion that employees ought to have a place on the company's remuneration committee. After all, they have just as much interest in the company being run well, because their jobs depend on it. But they also bring a viewpoint which is sorely lacking in these discussions, whether they are being held in Switzerland or Britain.

The city of Montreux, Switzerland. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder