Time to stand up

Being nice to global corporations doesn't work.

The decisive political development of the last 30 years was the shift to a financialised and globalised capitalism. It was given a huge nudge by the 1980s "big bang" but this merely exacerbated a trend. Capital went global while democracy stayed rigidly national. Ever since the game for the left has been up. In the words of Zygmunt Bauman, we have power without politics and politics without power.

We were reminded of this on Tuesday when HSBC announced to the world that they would, after all, be keeping their company HQ in London, at least until 2015. It’s a trick this particular bank pulls again and again – along with a host of other global corporates.  It’s a message that says if you don’t regulate us as lightly as possible or tax us as minimally as possible then we will go to somewhere that does. Its called blackmail and it works. Governments fear losing even minimal corporate tax payments and duly oblige.  The tax base gets thinner and the capacity of companies to wreck the economy, because of the light touch regulations they demand, grows. Eventually the economy crashes as it did in 2008 and nothing happens to the banks who once again see their pay and rewards rocket while everyone else pays the tab. I’m so glad you're staying HSBC so we can continue to bail you out. 
 
So what to do? Well, lots. First we could tell them to get lost and go and re-locate to their neoliberal nirvana. Some might. But look at HSBC, a basket case of a once proud banking institution that is now mired in a money laundering scandal. But would they go? HSBC is run by real people with real lives. They have been based on London for over 25 years. That is people with families, roots and ties. London is a fantastic place to live and work. Would many want to swap that?
 
We could say instead that these are the rules of a civilised society and we expect you to honour them. We could champion the good companies – like GSK who, on this issue, have been very clear: they will not play the blackmail game and will pay all the taxes they are asked to pay (well done Andrew Witty, the company CEO).
 
We could look at the German system which anchors companies in places and to people through sunken costs that mean you cant just do a moonlight flit and sail off to a low tax, minimal regulation oasis without a hefty bill. And why don’t we suggest, starting in Europe, that there is a minimum level of corporation tax all companies have to pay to end the race to the bottom. The same with tax havens.  And why not introduce a financial transaction tax, which means no finance sector company can ever escape paying their fair share.
 
Companies like HSBC are just playground bullies. Being nice to them doesn’t work. They will still nick our dinner money. We have to stand up to them. Progress is the chase and pursuit of irresponsible capitalism to the furthest quarters of the globe – to pin it down, regulate it and make it safe for people and the planet. That is a big daunting task I know – but its either that or being bullied.
 
PS The government have announced the end of a short-lived ministerial committee set up to tackle long term health issues like obesity, alcohol abuse and growing health inequalities. It was a good idea but ironically wasn’t given any time. Labour and others should demand that it be reinstated or promise to do so themselves. This switch from public services going "upstream" to deal with causes and not just symptoms is crucial to the reform of the state. It is an idea being championed by the brilliant Anna Coote over at the New Economics Foundation. Why spend loads of money fishing someone out of a downstream river when you could have saved money and a life live by stopping them falling in in the first place? Only on this issue it would mean taking on the fast food and alcohol industries. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised long termism was given such short shift. 
HSBC is always threatening to up sticks and leave the UK (Photo: Getty Images)

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Photo: Getty
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Boris Johnson is out of control, but Theresa May is too weak to punish him

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less.

Only younger Tory MPs asked last weekend: “Why did Boris do it?” Why did he write a 4,000-word essay on his demands for Brexit, just six days before Theresa May would make a definitive speech on the government’s plans? The older ones knew why: he hadn’t been the centre of attention for a while and wanted to remind people of his existence and that he remained in the game. A charitable fringe of pro-Brexit MPs thought he did it because he is a sincere Leaver, motivated by a desire to ensure the democratically expressed will of the British people is discharged. However, theirs was not a view widely shared.

Others thought they could trace the motivation for Johnson’s intervention back to the events of June 2016. “The reputation of Vote Leave at the moment is a pile of shit,” one told me, referring to the campaign whose figurehead Johnson had been. The metaphor became even more pungent: “Going back to the £350m is like a dog returning to his vomit.” The figure, plastered on Vote Leave’s battle bus, was the amount Johnson and his friends claimed would be available post-Brexit to spend weekly on the NHS. It was quickly rubbished, with Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign dismissing it outright. It was a gross, not a net, figure; it included the EU rebate, which ceases to exist when our contributions stop. David Norgrove, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has repudiated the assertion; and there are many other institutions, such as our tertiary education sector, that will lose EU money and expect the government to make it up. That Johnson should mention this fantasy figure in his article has bemused even some of that dwindling band of MPs who still see him as a possible future leader.

Although the piece was in Johnson’s familiar idiom, others detected in it the influence of Vote Leave’s former director, Dominic Cummings. Further evidence came in a bout of aggressive tweeting from Cummings after the pack turned on Johnson. An MP who worked with Vote Leave told me, “Cummings has returned. He is a narcissist. If he can’t get his own way, then he prefers to destroy: that was how he operated all through the campaign.”

Cummings, a former aide to Michael Gove, is like Johnson a publicity addict: both thirst to see their names in the media. He disappeared from view after Gove’s failed leadership bid, when Gove had to promise supporters that Cummings would not work in Downing Street if he won, so toxic was Cummings’s reputation after Vote Leave. Gove was quoted as supporting Johnson’s “vision”, a further sign of Cummings’s involvement. Within 24 hours, Gove’s friends denied that he supported any such thing but then, as Cummings went into action, Gove confirmed his backing for Johnson.

Johnson’s intervention did not grate with everybody. Some Brexiteer Tories, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, felt that after a party debate dominated by ministers favouring a Brexit that looks like continued membership of the EU by other means – notably Philip Hammond – it was time the Foreign Secretary spoke out for something representing a cleaner break. Some also felt that, given his office, he had a right to have a public say on the matter, after months in which May had done her best to ignore him.

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less, and suggestions he might resign are unlikely to concern her unduly. His remarks were not against party policy, but MPs trusted by Downing Street were at pains to stress that his views would have no effect on the content of the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, for there had “never been any chance of Theresa going off-piste”.

Johnson’s intervention was, however, unhelpful to him and to May. Colleagues saw it as the consequence of his having spent the summer steaming with frustration because he had lost ownership of the Brexit issue. He has also, according to friends, developed a thinner skin of late, and feels wounded by frequent attacks on him in the media pointing out his disengagement, his laziness, his ambition and his generally poor impression of a foreign secretary. For so long the goût du choix of many younger colleagues, he now finds they take him no more seriously than most of his older ones do. He once took for granted that in a leadership contest MPs would choose him as one of the two candidates for a plebiscite of the membership; now few think that likely.

Too many colleagues have taken the Telegraph article as further proof of his inability to be a team player, and of his unfitness for higher office – which was why Gove dropped him last year. Referring to Johnson’s time as mayor of London, a colleague says: “He was a good chairman, when he had seven or eight deputy mayors. But he can’t do what a minister is supposed to do, which is to grasp a policy and deliver it.” Another highlights his skewed sense of priorities and the lack of a deft political touch. “Isn’t it astonishing that just as he should be sorting out all consular and diplomatic help for our people in the West Indies after the hurricane, he finds time to write a 4,000-word newspaper article? As usual, it’s not about what’s good for the country. It’s what he thinks is good for him.”

Yet, as Ken Clarke swiftly pointed out, Boris Johnson has shown that however much he annoys May, she is too damaged and vulnerable to sack him. When Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, started mocking him as a “back-seat driver”, May was seen to be presiding over a cabinet whose most senior members were squabbling. Johnson’s self-indulgence also meant that the expectation surrounding May’s Florence speech, already considerable as she struggled to rebuild her credibility and that of her Brexit policy, became even harder to satisfy. 

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left