Tories, TUC and Tescopoly

At the risk of sounding like a bit of a Christian, I think God is trying to talk to me. Usually he has to shout a bit, maybe throw things. But right now I am pleased to listen. I watched a documentary about Walmart, the American supermarket giant (and the negative effects its rampant power is having on workers, shoppers, the environment and small businesses), with my house group last week and afterwards we prayed. We prayed that God would help us remember what we’d learned in the following week. The next morning I turned on my radio to hear of recommendations to curb the massive power of British supermarket giants.

Now, I’m not arrogant enough to presume that such a coincidence means God is showing he agrees with my particular views on this subject (well, not really), but of all last week’s supermarket news stories, very few were particularly positive. One concerned a recall of bad fish. Another dealt with how, when supermarkets offer ‘two for one’ deals on (for instance) punnets of strawberries, some of them demand that farmers supply the free strawberries to the supermarket for free (further undercutting the low prices dictated to farmers and leaving them a pittance). Still more told of how supermarket groups are increasingly bringing in American ‘union busters’, people whose job it is to get workers not to join unions (the organisations meant to be their collective bargaining voice and to protect their rights). A Competition Commission report accused Britain’s big four (Tesco, Sainsburys, Asda and Morrisons) of purposefully buying up land to force competitors (not just other economic titans, but smaller independent stores too) out of the market. Even the usually massive-corporation-friendly Tories last week outlined plans for neighbourhood food co-ops that would challenge the power of the supermarkets.

I’m not one for bowing to popular opinion, but when the TUC and the Tories are painting you as the bad guy, that’s a pretty rare concurrence of opinion. In the same way that black people, white people, fans of his music, people who hate it, people who thought he had a fair trial and people who don’t may disagree on a lot of things but still all feel uncomfortable with letting Michael Jackson baby-sit, it seems a lot of people agree that big supermarket chains are bad news.

And for once I must agree. And while I am more used to using this column for critiquing and complaining, for once I’d like to applaud: The limits the Competition Commission have recommended are good news. As the Telegraph pointed out, the news could have been better (supermarkets’ land stores are safe, for instance) but credit where it’s due, this is good news. The thing is, it doesn’t matter.

As long as we keep shopping there, as long as we choose convenience and cost over the lives of supermarket workers, suppliers and competitors, these giant companies will grow bigger and stronger and no amount of restrictions will make any difference. I’m not trying to lay a guilt-trip on you. You can be a good Christian and shop at Tesco. There are good Christians working at supermarkets, possibly even running them. Who am I to judge? But the effect the supermarket as an institution is having on society is well-documented. If we think our time, the ability to buy more luxuries than our parents could have dreamed of and ‘choice’ (usually to buy things we didn’t even know we wanted) are that important, let’s continue as we are. The independent stores, the farmers’ markets and the lifestyles that don’t involve buying to express ourselves – they’ll still be there while we make up our minds. How long they will be there, that’s another question.

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