The Sainsbury sting

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by Hazel Lewry

January 26th 2011, a day that should live in infamy.  A day that truly marks, in the most blatant of fashions, that politics is for sale, legislation can be purchased, and the rich will prevail in our Scotland simply because they can afford to.

We’re speaking, naturally enough of the ”Tesco Tax”, that self-same tax which the Scotsman recently (January 24th 2011) reported “may be saved by Labour”  which would reconsider its opposition.  Despite this, the parliamentary committee shortly afterwards apparently worked diligently to see that same tax marginalized as potential Labour support for that budgetary line item withered and died.

One must ask why Labour as a party would back such a potential vote loser from the common man and woman in Scotland, unless perhaps it is a reflection of an attitude of supreme confidence in the result of the upcoming May vote.  The decades’ old sure and certain knowledge that Scotland will “go Labour” could be behind the change in the party’s reported standing on the issue.  The real reason may perhaps become more significant if we alter the media’s given name from the “Tesco Tax” to the “Sainsbury Sting”.

Lord Sainsbury is a fine example for the Labour party to uphold, and to pander to.  A great benefactor to the British Museum in London and to the Labour party, he has made a combination of donations that’s well in excess of £30 million over the last decade.  Rather expensive for a peerage could be one perspective, if it were for a peerage alone, however in Westminster politics it is worthwhile noting that even backing an electoral loser it’s often still possible to influence policy, even if in another nation.

What the proposed rates redistribution would have achieved was to slide the purchasing power bias of the giants in retail very slightly back towards the small individual retailer.  It will by no means create an even playing field, but it will open a legislative door towards doing so. That legislative door is perhaps the real issue for the mega-retailers, as once the disparity is budgetarily enshrined it can be adjusted with little fuss by future administrations.  This is the probable foundation of opposition by these retailers, not so much today’s £30 million.  After all, Lord Sainsbury has demonstrated he can well afford to give that amount away to any issue he considers worthy, although given the destination of his largesse Scotland isn’t demonstrably one of them.

Then we have Labour’s cries about the state of the nation’s health, wealth, unemployment and, to a lesser extent, environment.  Cries that the current Scottish Government does too little to help, or does it in the wrong area and at the wrong time, or simply mis-prioritizes.  If we examine this levy in detail it becomes a startling defining concept between two similar left of centre political stances, separated on the surface mainly by the leaning of one towards autonomy and the other’s support for or potential regression from the status quo.

The other beneficiaries of this increase would have been the Scottish people, through funding for services and a slightly more competitive retail environment, as the mega-retailers are indicating that rather than pass on the cost it will be absorbed to permit a “competitive edge” to be retained.  Even so, the retailers have publicly stated they may have to relocate rather than increase prices, though historical precedent indicates this an empty threat.

A more competitive retail environment does many things as long as it is developed or protected.  This is being demostrated in communities in the USA from Turlock, CA in the West, through Eureka Springs, AR in the Center, to St Augustine FL in the East.  Local governments in these American towns have enacted specific square foot or other prohibitions, 100,000 sq ft in the case of Turlock.  These restrictions are either enforced throughout the local government area or are simply aimed at excluding the mega-retailers from significant swathes of community land.  Add to this a decided groundswell of movement against the superstores, which many individuals and communities are coming to view as unsustainable.  Those decrying the superstores cite very tangible benefits such as retention of the old downtown or town centre, more thriving small businesses and small business communities, and less traffic and pollution as people tend to park and walk.

The new regulations in these municipalities demonstrate that a sense of community is enhanced as people interact, get to know their neighbours, their vendors, and their towns.  Walking and exercise increases from a few hundred very well thought out yards of isles, requiring minimal effort, to perhaps a couple of miles of casual wandering.  No more just one stop at the checkout or for the cafeteria, but often a couple of coffees and a meal, all in different establishments.  Employment, as well as tax receipts, can actually increase.

The food and goods delivered by these small vendors is often much closer to source, and the local supply chain sees benefits.  Farmers are and producers are paid more to the value of their goods rather than some dictated contract enforced through multinational power that requires our taxes to then subsidize the producer.  Personal relationships expand, while fitness is slowly improved leading over time to a reduced strain on health services.  Of course it does tend to reduce dependency on the state.

There are downsides of course.  A move away from superstores has the initial potential to be a little more expensive at each store and the choices can sometimes be a little more limited, however there’s a very good chance you can more than offset those costs in the fuel you save by no longer driving to an out-of-town supermarket.  You will also save yourself, or at least help to postpone, the grief and complications of a later life dependent upon state provided medication.  If the state has to spend spending less on healthcare then perhaps more funding is available for pensions.

In the end, you pay your money and you make your choice, or perhaps it’s better stated that you pay your money and you get your laws.  Every penny spent in one of the major chains which would have been paying this tax sees reserves added to the fund to help them promulgate the laws that suit them.  Those laws are invariably anti-competition.  Additionally the mega-retailers often act in a way that stifles the local economy in order to to fill the pockets of their stockholders.

Now that we’ve seen the direction the final budget as forwarded has taken, it’s up to us to decide; are our laws and lawmakers that blatantly for sale?  In so many ways, it’s the consumer’s decision.

And never forget that you are the consumer.