Archive for the ‘Big Society’ Category

People’s Supermarket: Right Problem, Wrong Solution

February 21, 2011

At first Channel Four’s latest crusading documentary The People’s Supermarket seemed to strike the right tones. A community unite to turn their collective backs on the big business supermarkets that dominate the food industry and set up their own shop – groceries for the people by the people. However, as David Cameron swiftly spotted, the idea has more in kin with his ‘Big Society’ then it does with collective ownership.

The series follows the efforts of unknown-celebrity chef Arthur Potts Dawson as he takes a defiant aim at the goliaths of the food industry, which dominate over 80% of the market, leaving independent stores with just 2.2 per cent of food sales in the UK.

In the first episode Potts Dawson meets a dairy farmer who is being forced out of business. His problem is that supermarkets will only pay him 15 pence per litre of milk, yet it costs 29 pence a litre to produce. Both farmer and host lament that the likes of Tesco buy cheap and sell cheap, while smaller shops cannot afford to compete or buy the produce at a fairer cost.

Here Potts Dawson hits upon the central problem, not only for the food industry but for capitalism at large. As a shop manager he cannot afford to pay the farmer the 29 pence a litre if he is to make a profit and pay his staff a decent wage, yet if he pays less for the milk it is the farmer who is out of pocket.

To solve this traditional problem of capitalism Potts Dawson turns to the traditional solution, if he wants to pay the farmer a fairer deal he’s going to have to cut his staff’s wages.

With an epiphany which would make Phillip Green proud he realises that if he can cut labour costs to sell the food cheaper and give the producers a fairer deal, what would happen if he just didn’t pay his staff anything at all?  

The result is for Potts Dawson to proclaim that any member who buys into the project must pay him a £25 entry fee and promise to work for free for at least four hours a month. In return they will get a discount to his – and it remains his – barren shelved corner shop and if they are lucky they may find themselves featured on TV.

Hoping for exactly that David Cameron visited the shop last week to explain that this is a prime example of his ‘Big Society’ idea made reality. Presumably he didn’t explicitly mean people working for nothing for little result to satisfy the crusade of one wealthy cost cutting zealot.

As the series unfolds our hosts decries the waste generated by big business and battles the bureaucracy of his local council, yet by the third episode he discovers that ‘people aren’t getting it’ and his store is failing to attract the membership, and money, it needs to survive.

The reality is that like the ‘Big Society’ people understand and  reject the suggestion that after a full working day they might like to run a supermarket, a care home, a fire station or any other service where the management have discovered Potts Dawson’s magical formula of abolishing pay and promoting volunteerism as a cover to cut costs.

As well intentioned as Potts Dawson may be to encourage community unity or to promote ethical food production his sole achievement, beyond enhancing his TV credentials, is to demonstrate that under capitalism the circle of production, profit and labour costs cannot be squared for a fair deal for all.  It remains to be seen how long the venture will continue and if the support of the Prime Minister will attract new converts. Perhaps if membership begins to nosedive Cameron might chip in his own four hours worth once a month?