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15 October 2009

Should Britain be run by Tesco?

The company's record ain't great

By Mehdi Hasan

Congratulations to Alex Brummer, who won two prizes at this week’s inaugural Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. He picked up a gong for financial column of the year and also bagged a second prize for best magazine commentator, for his work in the New Statesman.

But I have to disagree with the great man about his column in today’s Daily Mail, headlined: “What if Tesco ran the country?”

Let’s be honest. We all love Tesco. OK, let me rephrase that. Even those of us who care about low pay, workers’ rights and corporate social responsibility and who normally take a rather dim view of big business often end up making the confession that I am about to make: I spend about two or three nights a week shopping at my local Tesco superstore. I can’t help it — Tesco makes life so convenient.

But I have to draw the line at running Britain along the lines of Sir Terry Leahy’s multibillion-pound corporate behemoth. Here’s something to give you a flavour of Alex’s column:

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How different Britain might have been had Gordon Brown got his way and managed to persuade Sir Terry Leahy, the quiet man who leads Tesco, to run the National Health Service.

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But if Leahy, who is married to a GP, had agreed to take on this mammoth task, he would never have made the botch of a job that New Labour has achieved . . .

In so many other areas, a country run according to Tesco principles would have meant a dramatic improvement in the population’s living standards . . .

There are so many other areas where Britain could have benefited from the Tesco touch . . .

Allowing mistakes to drag would be anathema in Tescoland.

Hold on! As I said, I’m as big a fan of Tesco as the next man when it comes to a convenient and cheap weekly shop . . . but running the country? It would be AWFUL. Alex makes no reference to the various critiques of Tesco made in recent years by the green, sustainable and trade union movements.

He makes no mention, for example, of the Competition Commission’s recommendation, early this month, that the government “take the necessary steps to introduce a competition test in planning decisions on larger grocery stores”. The CC’s proposal, writes Alex Renton, “acknowledges that ‘Tesco towns’ like Swansea, Truro and Inverness — where £3 in every £4 is spent with the retailer — are a bad thing”. (By the way, Renton also writes that “if you do shop at Tesco, by the way, bear in mind that the store has a 30 per cent share of British grocery retail and has been doing gloriously out of you through the recession, with sales up yet again in the first six months of the year, and pre-tax profits now just under £1.5bn for the period”.)

In his Mail column, extolling the virtues of a hypothetical Tesco-led Britain, Brummer also fails to mention any the numerous local campaigns against the firm’s expansion plans across the country. Nor does he mention a story reported in his own paper, in August, about how Tesco used “bogus” statistics to try to convince the residents of Manningtree to back “its efforts to expand its supermarket empire”:

Britain’s biggest retailer sent leaflets to residents in an Essex town claiming its own research demonstrated there was a “need and demand” for a new supermarket.

However, the telephone poll used as the basis of the claim showed that just 38 out of the 440 people surveyed wanted a new supermarket — 8.6 per cent.

While even fewer people, just 20, said they would like to see a new Tesco.

Today the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) condemns the leaflet as misleading and has ordered the supermarket not to send it out again.

But perhaps most importantly, if Brummer is right, and Leahy would do a better job of running the country than Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling, how does he explain this letter from Barack Obama, of June 2008? The then presidential candidate and junior senator from Illinois took time out from his campaign to write to Sir Terry, complaining about the firm’s lack of engagement with “community stakeholders” in the United States and lending his support to a campaign by the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, which Tesco’s American operation, Fresh & Easy, had refused to meet with, let alone recognise. “I strongly request that you revisit that decision,” wrote Obama, warning that workplace rights would have a prominent place on his presidential policy platform. “I again urge you to reconsider your policy of non-engagement in the United States.”

If you think Brown had problems with Obama, how do you imagine a Tesco-led Foreign Office would handle the “special relationship”?