Toothlessness parliamentary committees are a complete whitewash and a waste of time, claims Amy Westwell
In June, the Commons business committee grilled Sports Direct billionaire Mike Ashley over injustices at Sports Direct that the Unite union had been highlighting for a long time.
Now Sir Philip Green’s management of BHS has been branded by two committees as “the unacceptable face of capitalism,” echoing similar comments about Ashley as “the unacceptable face of modern capitalism.”
Parliamentary committees make pronouncements upon obvious social ills. Even Tories cannot deny, at least publicly, that it is unjust to pay people less than the contracted wage, that people should not be forced to work through illness or sacked at a moment’s notice and that pension schemes should not be jeopardised. Which is why Ashley and Green are being chastised from across the political spectrum.
The BHS report concludes that Green has a “moral duty” to repay the money he has removed from the pension fund. All very well — but if moral demands had an impact on capitalist excess then the world would look very different.
So now that we have — for the most part — a socialist party in opposition how should it treat moments when individual capitalists like Ashley and Green are exposed?
Back in the innocent days of the 2015 Labour leadership contest, Jeremy Corbyn said: “I don’t do personal attacks.” This simple statement blossomed into a slogan of a “kinder, more caring politics.”
The Sunday school intention seems to have stuck — Corbyn’s rather half-hearted swipe at Ashley as someone who would “make Scrooge look like a good employer” was his only attempt at a “personal” attack on capitalists.
After Ashley’s trial by committee, Corbyn said that, “instead of just publicly shaming unscrupulous employers, the Tory MPs who quizzed Mike Ashley should be asking their colleagues in government to pass laws to prevent such terrible working conditions.”
In one sense he is right. Public shaming is a way for the Tories to dodge criticism while allowing them to carry on making back-room deals with unscrupulous capitalists while ignoring the real issues. It preserves the image of capitalism as essentially good with only a few rogues comprising its “unacceptable face.”
But on the other hand, there are already laws to prevent “such terrible working conditions,” they are just very badly upheld. The Tories are systematically removing all vestiges of a support system that allows workers to use employment law to their advantage, and are crippling trade unions who might assist workers in demanding their legal rights.
For Labour to make outrage against company bosses effective it will have to fuel a more direct challenge to the power of all those who hold the life and labour of thousands under their sway and duress.
After all, while the party might rail against the economic system of capitalism, the way capitalism affects most people’s lives is through the actions of individual property-owners, the decisions of CEOs, the whims of landlords, the indecision of currency markets.
And against them workers, tenants and migrants are weak, not because there aren’t laws, but because the law will always be skewed in favour of property-owners — because property is after all the basis of law — and because to use the law requires power in trade unions, in tenants’ unions and in community organisations.
Corbyn’s response to the new revelations about Green should not be to call for tighter laws, or different laws. Nor, as shadow chancellor John McDonnell has done, should it be to ask Green to “do the right thing” like a good capitalist.
Labour should decry not just the system, and not just individual capitalists who act unlawfully, but the rotten swathes of property-owning individuals who wield unfathomable power over the lives of ordinary people.
Maybe it’s time to get personal.
Amy Westwell (@amywestwell) is co-author of Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland (Luath Press)