John McDonnell Guardian Opinion June 11
Last week, we saw the ugly face of British capitalism. The excellent work of the business select committee, and its Labour chair, Iain Wright, has helped throw a spotlight on some of the more disgraceful practices that are taking place here in the UK. We discovered that the management of BHS were threatening to kill one another and the head of Sports Direct spuriously claim that he doesn’t even know what his own organisation is up to.
Thanks to the work of investigative journalists, Sports Direct, a profitable company, was exposed treating its workforce with utter contempt. It had penalised low-paid employees for taking time off sick and founder, Mike Ashley, was forced to admit that his company was not even paying many of the staff the national minimum wage.
Mr Ashley is a man who has made millions while treating his workforce with disregard. He claimed he could not stop such behaviour quickly as Sports Direct was an “oil-tanker”, but it’s more like a ghost ship when it comes to accountability.
But clearly, this is what happens when trade unions are demonised by the media and suppressed by big business interests. In future, I would like to see any company that has been found to have broken the law and not paid staff the minimum wage, and is not recognising the trade union that represents their workforce, not only made to recognise that union, but made to accept, if the union wishes, worker representation on the board.
Furthermore, the chancellor, George Osborne, has to make sure there is no sweetheart deal for Sports Direct (like the one we saw for Google over unpaid taxes) if it is found in breach of national minimum wage laws.
This week, we may witness Philip Green (I refuse to use his title) justify his actions at BHS. The fact he feels he can threaten to subvert parliament is an insultto the British public. If he refuses to come before parliament, Green should be stripped of his knighthood. Parliament should have the right to strip honours from individuals, in my view. This would remove the secret committee network and help restore public faith in the honours system.
Green removed £1bn via a dividend payment from the Arcadia group in 2005. He squeezed out similar amounts from BHS while leaving the pension fund in deficit, before handing over the company to someone with very little record of business success. It was another act of vandalism that makes a mockery of those in business who are doing the right thing. And – even worse – employees of BHS will be paying for this with their pensions.
The vast majority of British firms pay their taxes and manage their staff with respect. However, there is a growing elite who think they are above the law and above British decency.
The new elite do not want to create wealth – they simply want to absorb it. The continued rise of this rent-seeking class is reminiscent of the robber barons of the 19th century. This new squalid elite assume that by their own genius they have amassed large sums of money, and that they have a right to do what they like, when they like, and that no one will stop them.
Maybe this is true under a Tory government, but under a Labour government with Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister this will no longer be the case.
It also underlines why we must remain in the European Union and reject Tory Brexit. If we don’t fight to keep and expand the working rights we have at an EU level, then a Tory Brexit government will only negotiate them away in trade deals that will resemble TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) on steroids.
We have a chance now to build Another Europe in which we work with socialists across the EU to end austerity and take on those who attack workers’ rights and avoid taxes.
This is not anti-business. It’s anti-freeloader. If we allow these practices to continue they will undermine the foundations on which all genuine wealth creation is built. It will create an environment that benefits rent-seekers over wealth creators. It is time we brought an end to the new age of the robber barons. The health of our economy demands it.