20 July 2017

The Tories must tackle crony corporatism


I don’t watch the news or Question Time, because the pontifications of various political and comedic celebrities won’t shift my vote; also, in middle age, I prefer to manage my blood pressure carefully.

That latter reason also sends me circuit training at a Russell Square gym three or four mornings a week, where I’ve found, like the sex lives of soap stars, there are some stories you can’t avoid merely by not watching Question Time. BBC Breakfast plays in the gym’s changing rooms, and above the running machines.

Via this medium, on Tuesday, I saw some academic declare that the levelling off in life expectancy may well be to do with “austerity” (that’s the “austerity” which has seen public spending rise, year on year, along with middle-class tax bills), and the BBC was wetting itself over it. Every morning there’s a sob-story about how austerity is harming children/ killing council residents/ destroying public health. The chance of a fair hearing for centre-right viewpoints — already history in academia — is vanishing fast across the television landscape.

But then, on Thursday, optimism returned. Because this morning’s news was about the obscenity of BBC pay packets, and — beyond the righteous anger — I detected the glimmer of a strategy for how the Right can fight back.

I’ve been training in this gym long enough to be on friendly terms with most of the other 7am-ers . Our demographic: a smattering of academics (we’re round the corner from UCL), but mostly private sector salary-people, and a high proportion of self-employed builders (working on the university estate, I guess). And then the gym staff, paid a pittance. The skilled ones try to make a living income by selling personal training sessions.

Builders and freelance trainers: the gig economy, then. A private sector gig economy. Labour’s target vote.

Not all gig economies are equal, of course, and on the gym’s TV screens the usual parade of androids was produced to mouth the cliches about why Gary Lineker requires shedloads of money to read an autocue. “I know, I just know,” emoted one former BBC 1 Controller, as I towelled myself down, “that licence-fee payers understand that the usual public sector rules don’t apply when you’re dealing with talent.”

Shame he couldn’t hear the mass “pah” (I’m paraphrasing; the actual words were distinctly Anglo-Saxon) from my fellow towellers. And while his audience in the male changing-room was clearly gender biased, it’s much less so than that which applies to the BBC’s rules for sourcing “talent”. One male Gary Lineker autocue reader is worth how many female autocue readers?

So here’s my plan. Yes, of course, use whatever levers are made apparent by the BBC’s hubris to force reform onto the corporation. Sack Gary Lineker, for a start: I dare say football coverage on BBC1 will manage to limp on without his arch-Corbynite sneering. (“It’s your BBC,” they smugly insist. OK: if it’s mine, I’d like to sell off Lineker to whatever junk food company would have him.)

But build on this, Conservatives, and recognise that changing-room anger for what it is: entirely justified, and not aimed only at the cronies at the BBC. Lots of corporations, way beyond the British Broadcasting one, have been practising crony-corporatist pay policies for decades.

Wages have stagnated since 2008 and, while there’s not much an honest Tory government can do about that, beyond lowering taxes and encouraging growth, there’s no evidence that ballooning CEO pay is correlated with shareholder value. There’s even less evidence that forcing down the wages of staff while the CEOs garner ever deeper saucers of cream is conducive to economic growth. But despite the occasional semi-revolt by the pension fund shareholder giants, the pay cartel at the top of British corporations continues.

How delicious would it be to see Tories take this corporatism on? Not all of Theresa May’s instincts are wrong, and she started off intending to do something about this. Put the entire pay and benefits package of every CEO on the front page of the company annual report. Give shareholder votes real teeth. (And let licence-fee payers elect the BBC chairperson.)

Here’s the clear blue water. Put the Conservatives on the side of the worker; at the same time, the Left will be defending Gary Lineker and his ilk. As we speak, Polly Toynbee is regurgitating her annual column about why Mr Lineker’s pay means we should all publish our tax returns. How would that land with the builders and gym workers in the actual gig economy, do you think?

It’s pure deflection: the problem isn’t with my tax return, or yours. The scandal lies with pay at the top of these corporations, in their endless game of “you scratched my back, so let me recommend a pay rise for you too”.

So let’s test the theory that all the talent will scarper if we had some real transparency about how much they earn off our labour. I’m more than willing to take the risk — and not just with the Corbynite crisp-pushers at the BBC.

Graeme Archer is a political commentator and statistician