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An open letter to Vince Cable

Now is the time to choose between the smoking lobby and the British people.

Dear Vince,
In the next few weeks, you will have to choose sides. Who will you back: doctors, public health professionals, Britain's leading heart and cancer charities and 70 per cent of all voters - or the tobacco industry?

Last year, parliament passed the Health Act. Among other things, it banned shops from openly displaying cigarettes and also cigarette vending machines. Supermarkets have to get rid of their point-of-sale displays late next year; smaller shops have until October 2013 to make the change. The choice you face is to let these bans take effect or to ask parliament to repeal these sections of the Health Act as part of your laudable quest to root out unnecessary regulation. (Similar bans are about to go ahead in Scotland anyway, after Edinburgh's Court of Session rejected Imperial Tobacco's legal challenge to them last month.)

Tobacco advertising was banned seven years ago and smoking in public places was outlawed three years ago. The tobacco lobby opposed both changes but, with public support, MPs and peers faced them down and helped to further one of the great public health successes of our age: the steady reduction in the number of smokers. Today, tobacco companies rely heavily on point-of-sale displays to promote their wares. The new act is designed to close this loophole. YouGov research shows that 70 per cent of British people back the new bans. So does every significant organisation concerned with public health. And international experience tells us that the bans will work; in parti­cular, they are likely to reduce the number of teenagers who take up smoking.

Smoke and mirrors

So, this should be one of your simpler decisions. And it would be, were it not for ferocious lobbying by the tobacco industry. Its campaign is based on two main arguments: that the bans would lead to an upsurge in smuggled cigarettes and therefore cost the government huge amounts in lost revenue; and that the bans would drive small shops out of business. Let's examine these in turn.

In an "advertorial" in the New Statesman on 20 September, Steve Stotesbury, Imperial Tobacco's head of corporate affairs, said the ban "is likely to further fuel the illicit trade in tobacco products - this has certainly occurred in Ireland since their tobacco display ban came into force just over a year ago".

There is no sign from Ireland's official sales data of any such switch. This should not surprise us: for years, the tobacco industry has been seeking to distract attention from its own responsibility to curb smuggling.

In 2003, the Commons public accounts committee estimated that smuggling cost £2.8bn a year in lost revenues and that half of all the cigarettes smuggled into Britain were Imperial Tobacco products. Edward Leigh, the committee's (Conservative) chairman, accused the company of failing to help reduce these "enormous losses . . . [Imperial Tobacco] persisted in exporting large volumes to places like Andorra and Kaliningrad when it must have known that the cigarettes could not possibly be for those domestic markets."

Since then, shamed by criticism and in the face of government and EU pressure, Imperial and other tobacco companies have tightened their controls. The trade in illicit tobacco has fallen sharply. Last month, Imperial was the last of the big four tobacco companies to sign a legally binding 20-year agreement with the European Commission. The companies have the means to stamp out smuggling (including using the latest technology to distinguish genuine from counterfeit cigarette packs) and will face huge penalties if they fail to do so.

As with all crimes, smuggling will never disappear entirely. But there is no evidence that banning point-of-sale displays will reverse recent declines. In Canada, where the display ban was introduced at different times in different provinces over the past ten years, smuggling in the middle of the decade was a greater problem in provinces that had not yet imposed the ban than in those that had. Now that all provinces have banned displays, smuggling has fallen.

Old tricks

Turning to the claim that retailers will suffer badly, the evidence says: don't be fooled. For a start, we have been here before. The tobacco industry said drinkers would desert pubs in vast numbers when smoking was banned in public places three years ago. They didn't. Nor are pubs likely to suffer greatly from the ban on vending machines, as they earn little from them. If one pub were to rip its machine out, it might lose business to its rivals; but if all machines are banned, no pub will suffer significantly.

As for retailers, the evidence from Ireland is that the costs of implementing the ban have been modest. That is not to say there are no costs. After all, the main point of banning point-of-sale displays is to reduce the number of new, teenage smokers - the people who tend to be most influenced by such displays - not to prevent existing smokers from satisfying their addiction. The ban will be beneficial in the long term but the impact will be gradual. Shopkeepers need time to adjust to socially desirable change. They have it. Small retailers have three years to plan for the display ban.

In any case, efficient retailers have managed to survive the halving of the numbers of smokers since the 1970s. Instead of spending money on cigarettes, teenagers will have more money for other things. The retail sector as a whole should not suffer at all.

So, Vince, don't be taken in by the warnings from Big Tobacco. It is simply up to its old tricks, seeking to muddy the waters in order to maintain its profits as a band of merchants of death.

Peter Kellner is president of YouGov and a trustee of Ash (Action on Smoking and Health)

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Labour break the Osborne supremacy?

The Conservative hegemony is deeply embedded - but it can be broken, says Ken Spours.

The Conservative Party commands a majority not just in the House of Commons, but also in the wider political landscape. It holds the political loyalty of expanding and powerful voting constituencies, such as the retired population and private sector businesses and their workers. It is dominant in English politics outside the largest urban centres, and it has ambitions to consolidate its position in the South West and to move into the “Northern Powerhouse”. Most ambitiously, it aims to detach irreversibly the skilled working classes from allegiance to the Labour Party, something that was attempted by Thatcher in the 1980s. Its goal is the building of new political hegemonic bloc that might be termed the Osborne supremacy, after its chief strategist.

The new Conservative hegemony is not simply based on stealing Labour’s political clothes or co-opting the odd political figure, such as Andrew Adonis; it runs much deeper and has been more than a decade the making. While leading conservative thinkers have not seriously engaged with the work of Antonio Gramsci, they act as if they have done. They do this instinctively, although they also work hard at enacting political domination.

 Adaptiveness through a conservative ‘double shuffle’

A major source of the new Conservative hegemony has been its fundamental intellectual political thinking and its adaptive nature. The intellectual foundations were laid in the decades of Keysianism when free market thinkers, notably Hayak and Friedman, pioneered neo-liberal thinking that would burst onto the political scene in Reagan/Thatcher era.  Despite setbacks, following the exhaustion of the Thatcherite political project in the 1990s, it has sprung back to life again in a more malleable form. Its strengths lie not only in its roots in a neo-liberal economy and state, but in a conservative ‘double shuffle’: the combining of neo-Thatcherite economics and social and civil liberalism, represented by a highly flexible and cordial relationship between Osborne and Cameron.  

 Right intellectual and political resources

The Conservative Party has also mobilised an integrated set of highly effective political and intellectual resources that are constantly seeking new avenues of economic, technological, political and social development, able to appropriate the language of the Left and to summon and frame popular common sense. These include well-resourced Right think tanks such as Policy Exchange; campaigning attack organisations, notably, the Taxpayers Alliance; a stratum of websites (e.g. ConservativeHome) and bloggers linked to the more established rightwing press that provide easy outlets for key ideas and stories. Moreover, a modernized Conservative Parliamentary Party provides essential political leadership and is highly receptive to new ideas.

 Very Machiavellian - conservative coercion and consensus

No longer restrained by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have also opted for a strategy of coercion to erode the remaining political bastions of the Left with proposed legislation against trade unions, attacks on charities with social missions, reform of the Human Rights Act, and measures to make it more difficult for trade unionists to affiliate to the Labour Party. Coupled with proposed boundary changes and English Votes for English Laws (Evel) in the House of Commons, these are aimed at crippling the organisational capacity of Labour and the wider Left.  It is these twin strategies of consensus and coercion that they anticipate will cohere and expand the Conservative political bloc – a set of economic, political and social alliances underpinned by new institutional ‘facts on the ground’ that aims to irrevocably shift the centre of political gravity.

The strengths and limits of the Conservative political bloc

In 2015 the conservative political bloc constitutes an extensive and well-organised array of ‘ramparts and earthworks’ geared to fighting successful political and ideological ‘wars of position’ and occasional “wars of manoeuvre”. This contrasts sharply with the ramshackle political and ideological trenches of Labour and the Left, which could be characterised as fragmented and in a state of serious disrepair.

The terrain of the Conservative bloc is not impregnable, however, having potential fault lines and weaknesses that might be exploited by a committed and skillful adversary. These include an ideological approach to austerity and shrinking the state that will hit their voting blocs; Europe; a social ‘holding pattern’ and dependence on the older voter that fails to tap into the dynamism of a younger and increasingly estranged generation and, crucially, vulnerability to a new economic crisis because the underlying systemic issues remain unresolved.

 Is the Left capable of building an alternative political bloc?

The answer is not straightforward.  On the one hand, Corbynism is focused on building and energizing a committed core and historically may be recognized as having saved the Labour Party from collapse after a catastrophic defeat in May. The Core may be the foundation of an effective counter bloc, but cannot represent it.  A counter-hegemony will need to be built by reaching out around new vision of a productive economy; a more democratic state that balances national leadership and local discretion (a more democratic version of the Northern Powerhouse); a new social alliance that really articulates the idea of ‘one nation’ and an ability to represent these ideas and visions in everyday, common-sense language. 

 If the Conservatives instinctively understand political hegemony Labour politicians, with one or two notable exceptions, behave as though they have little or no understanding of what is actually going on.  If they hope to win in future this has to change and a good start would be a collective sober analysis of the Conservative’s political and ideological achievements.

This is an extract from The Osborne Supremacy, a new pamphlet by Compass.

Ken Spours is a Professor at the IoE and was Convener of the Compass Education Inquiry. The final report of the Compass Education Inquiry, Big Education can be downloaded here.