(published in The Tribune, 18 March 2005, p. 20)


There was a time long ago when Labour saw its job as controlling capitalism and protecting the people. Now we`re New Labour in a new post-socialist age so our priorities have reversed to befriending capitalism and controlling the people.  After all, companies now have pious mission statements pledging them to good behaviour while the people are prone to embark on an orgy of yobbery, drink, crime and salt and sugar intake.

So we`ve lavished love, care and gifts on business, our new friend, has been given huge new areas of profitability, particularly in the public sector, with PFIs and PPPs and huge swathes of consultancy work.  It`s been allowed to permeate the civil service, protected from the terrors of European regulation, its taxes have been reduced and it`s allowed to run schools, hospitals and housing because we think it`s so much more efficient than the public sector.  It`s even been brought into the heart of government.

Sadly capitalism has neither lived up to its claims of social responsibility nor been worthy of the trust we`ve given it.  It hasn`t improved its behaviour.  It sill cuts corners, cheats on contracts, fiddles the figures and abuses its power and puts profit and the fat cat pay they permit above every social obligation.  Companies Rule.  Not OK.  Indeed all the old naughtiness, exploitation of Labour, over-pricing dodgy accountancy to manipulate profits and excessive rewards at the top have gone into overdrive.  No Enrons here but plenty of lesser frauds in a climate where bigger ones are unlikely to emerge anyway because of Britain`s protective secrecy and ineffective regulation.  Unless, of course, the company goes belly up and all the scams emerge.  There`s an increasing propensity to dodge social and tax obligations and regulation, a growing trend to fiddling company affairs through tax havens or use globalisation as an excuse to beat down wages, abandon workers and renege on long-standing associations with localities by closing down and exporting jobs and production lock, stock and barrel to more profitable climes.  Nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of higher profits.  If these are better available in the Far East or Eastern Europe then it`s Goodbye Cruel Britain.  Companies don`t ……. like yobs, shave their heads or lie around drunk in the street.  Indeed they`ve got very polished public relations and their dirty work is always done in the dark, but then they mug consumers, beat up shareholders, stuff their pockets with other people`s money and fiddle more than Yahudi Menuhin.

We`ve tried friendship and been spurned.  Trust and cooperation have worked as well as they would with any other wild animals.  Carrots, grants, honours and regular visits to Number 10 haven`t tamed companies` wild tooth and claw.  So why not try treating them in the way we do real people?  Offer rights and responsibilities but if they abuse their rights and don`t fulfil their responsibilities then why not bash them?

Anti-Social Behaviour Orders are now being doled out in large numbers to nasty neighbours, yobs, bullies, prostitutes, boozers and social nuisances.  Why shouldn`t they be imposed on companies to require them to desist from anti-social practices?  Joint Stock status was specifically designed to give companies a legal personality so our New Labour mantra of rights and responsibilities must apply to them too.  So instead of being left to regulate themselves as they are in Britain`s “trust the chaps” system in which the mafia regulates the mafia they can face the summary justice of ASBOs for bad behaviour and a requirement to show repentance and better behaviour before the ASBO is lifted.

Recidivist companies could face tagging, a restriction and supervision of activity with a compulsory notice displayed in their premises?  Earnings attachments have been a useful way of dealing with those who don`t fulfil their obligations to wives, families and society generally.  They would be equally effective in siphoning off excess profits, such as those of banks and oil companies make out of our misery.  Use them too on those who eschew obligations to redundant workers or areas they abandon, or fail to pay back government grants and incentives if they shift overseas.  Dispersal orders can be invoked to deal with price fixing, restrictive practices and trading arrangements or other forms of collusion which cause the public to lose out.

There`s a nice armoury for Yob Capitalism but it leaves the problem of how to deal with the company sins which are more difficult to tackle: the export of jobs and production and the tax fiddles or profits laundered through tax havens to avoid tax and obligations to the country which provided  their markets, trained  and educated their workers and maintained the basic networks of transport, law and order which underpin their operations.  House arrest as is being considered for terror suspects may be too extreme but imputation of profit earned in this country for tax purposes and extraction of the money by attachment of earnings in this country can be applied to profits here.

Community service can also be invoked to ensure that firms closing production in this country to take it abroad fulfil their obligations to the local community, to the workers made redundant, to clearing up the site and providing finance for new local jobs and retraining.  Backed  by curfew and reporting-in arrangements to ensure that departure is delayed until all is done and that  all grants made available to set up there in the first place are repaid, this would be a major deterrent to running out on this country and mugging its consumers from a hidey hole outside.

The resources of civilisation to deal with our foot loose predatory capitalism set free from its roots and obligations by globalisation are neither exhausted nor as inadequate as our government would have us believe.  All we have to do is treat them as the legal persons they are and use the same weapons we are so enthusiastically applying to yobs, neighbours from hell, druggies, petty criminals and others too small to fight back.  Treat nasty business neighbours in the same way and the social inadequates we’re now depriving of their rights might even be helped to understand that in their own small way they are pioneering processes which will bring huge benefit to society.  It will certainly provide higher tax revenue which we might even be able to use to retrain the people we`re bullying, and make Britain the kind of good society companies won`t be so keen to leave.

Of course we could try the obvious alternative and provide an effective independent regulator like American Securities and Exchange Commission but companies seem horrified at that prospect.  Perhaps a short, sharp shock might make them think again.