A Labour Party in pieces

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We all knew that there would be a political fall out in the event of a Brexit, but we never expected it to be this sudden and extreme. The Labour Party is crumbling before our eyes, disintegrating into chaos, and its very own leader is at the epicentre of it all.

Jo Cox, the “wonderful woman”

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It’s easy to get carried away with the events of recent weeks, but today we were reminded of the harsh reality of the democracy that we live in. Jo Cox was only 41, elected last year as Labour MP for the North Yorkshire constituency of Batley and Spen. She was a wife, mother of two children and had the world at her feet. As we’ve seen today, her light burned too bright for some to handle, but some lights cannot be extinguished.

Sports Direct: A catalogue of failures?

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We’ve all been there. We’ve dragged our feet under the giant red, white and blue sign, collapsed through the doors and entered the maze of unfolded clothes and crammed in ‘99% OFF’ offers that is, in a nutshell, Sports Direct.

Its boss Mike Ashley eventually mustered up the courage to appear before the Commons Business Select Committee, having initially called it a ‘joke’. He was there to “defend Sports Direct’s good name”, in his own words, against a catalogue of serious allegations at its Shirebrook warehouse.

Ashley was under the spotlight, in the firing seat and he really was stripped bare. The defiant Mike Ashley that we have all come to know was present in the first 10 minutes of the session, but gradually over the next 80 minutes, this farce disappeared and we saw a sensitive, nervous, rather fearful side to him.

“WE SAW A SENSITIVE, NERVOUS, FEARFUL SIDE TO MIKE ASHLEY”

And he certainly had a right to be nervous. In November 2015, the Guardian sent two undercover reporters into the firm’s Derbyshire warehouse and found that workers:

  • Had 15 minutes of pay deducted for clocking in just one minute late for a shift, even if they arrived on site promptly.
  • Had to undergo compulsory rigorous security checks at the end of their shifts, after they had clocked out. These could become ‘bottlenecks’ and therefore take around 15 minutes, equalling 1 hour 15 minutes unpaid work every week.
  • Therefore received an effective rate of about £6.50 an hour as opposed to the minimum wage at the time of £6.70.
  • Had to conform to a six-month time-span ‘six strikes and you’re out’ policy, although these strikes could be issued for reasons such as “excessive/long toilet breaks” or a “period of reported sickness” – this allegedly led to a worker giving birth in a toilet at the site.
  • Were banned from wearing 802 individual clothing brands at work.

 

 

An earlier BBC investigation also found that ambulances had been called out to the warehouse 76 times in two years, where 36 of the cases were classified as “life-threatening”. Yet, when questioned about this by MPs, Ashley said that ambulances were being called out for trivial reasons.

The conditions that workers at the Shirebrook warehouse have undergone are undoubtedly awful, and described by the trade union Unite as “Dickensian”, but they are just a consequence of a much wider problem within Sports Direct.

The firm has exploded in growth, flowing with the tide of the modern globalised world, but its own management has failed to keep up. As Ashley conceded, the firm is “just too big” and had “probably” outgrown its ability to run itself. Indeed, he admitted “it’s like going out one day and you’ve got a tiny little inflatable, and you’re in control. And the next, you wake up one morning and you’re on an oil tanker”.

“SPORTS DIRECT IS JUST TOO BIG” – FOUNDER

Yet, Ashley admitting defeat has been a long time coming. Sports Direct may be bathing in billions, but its managerial structure is simply no longer functional: the shop floor staff have lost sight of the customers, their managers have lost sight of the staff, and the boss has lost sight of the firm in its entirety.

A member of staff at a Sports Direct retail store assured me that the leadership is “fairly adequate” and that “the warehouses are completely different” to the shops, but this isn’t the image that the man at the top of the chain describes.

When asked about the system of improvement being implemented at the firm, Ashley spoke of a review “that will never end”, a review that is currently being conducted by him. He invited independent investigators to assess the company from an impartial standpoint. Yet the fact that he didn’t do this in the first place suggests that there is something, or a number of things, that he wants to hide.

The system of feedback within the firm also appears to be shambolic. As Ashley put it: “Do we have procedures such as secret shoppers in place? Absolutely, yes. Do I see the results of those? No, not necessarily”.

So who does address the feedback from the review? “It’s filtered back to their head and then their head and then their head,” explained Ashley. This is a system at crisis point.

It is shocking how the management of what has grown into a global company can lose track of itself like this. It’s as if the superficial image of Sports Direct has grown with the ever-increasing pace of the world, but the real mechanics of the business are rusting in a dark room that was locked some decade ago.

Sports Direct is a catalogue of failures, and it comes down to the mindset of one particular individual. Mike Ashley, albeit incredibly respectable for his fundamental business acumen, lives in plausible denial, hungry for profit, seemingly uninterested in the way in which that profit machine operates. This, the absence of efficient structure and consequent moral tragedy of the warehouse and retail elements of the business, is the result.

Words by Ewan Somerville

For young people, there’s more to the EU Referendum than just statistics

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I know I’m not the only young person who is sick of all this petty squabbling over the European Union. As we saw in the BBC’s ‘How Should I Vote’ debate aimed at those aged 18-29 in Glasgow last Thursday, students across the country want answers, they want certainty, they want prosperous futures. As one undecided audience member put it to the panel: “I have no idea what to do, and I blame you lot entirely for that”.

Speaking to fellow students in Devon, there’s undoubtedly a general consensus that spurious and unfounded claims from Remain, such as ‘Brexit would leave families £4,300 a year worse off’, are pointless and unintuitive. Likewise, the blunder on the battle bus has left Boris Johnson’s pocket more than £350m lighter when it comes to trust from young voters. Indeed, a Treasury Select Committee recently concluded that these respective claims were “mistaken” and “deeply problematic”. Even those on the Remain and Leave sides in Glasgow admitted they had been confounding; one young pro-Leave voter said it was “appalling”.

Although the sentiment behind the BBC debate was fantastic, many of Britain’s students are still perplexed. So who knows what to vote? What choice is best for students? Recent polls by the student union at Petroc, the college I attend, and King Edward’s School in Bath found that 80% want to remain in the EU. I agree with them, and I firmly believe that all the evidence shows that students would lose out if we voted to leave on June 23rd.

Victoria Derbyshire hosts the BBC referendum debate
Victoria Derbyshire hosts the BBC referendum debate

It almost goes without saying that there will be better future job prospects for the current young generation if the UK is a member of the largest trading block in the world. Access to the European single market, the free trade area of the EU, is vital for thousands of businesses across our country and hence many jobs rely on it. This is particularly significant for city jobs; as Sadiq Khan said in his speech on Monday, over 500,000 London jobs will be at risk if we leave. Also, however sensationalist they may be at times, we cannot ignore the dire economic forecasts in the event of a Brexit. Do we really want to narrow the amount of job opportunities for our future workforce?

Then there’s migration, a topic that is increasingly being used by each campaign as a political knife, when actually it’s incredibly important to young people’s futures. It was revealed last week that the UK’s net migration has increased by 20,000 in the past year, reaching 333,000 in the year ending December 2015, 184,000 of these from other EU countries. Since 2004, when many ex-communist Eastern European countries joined the EU, the UK has seen an influx of thousands of skilled workers. The latest Leave video exclaims: “If you want to save the NHS, Vote Leave.” This is somewhat ironic as the current recruitment crisis in the British health and education sectors is making hard-working immigrants all the more vital if these cornerstones of society are to be strong for our futures. It‘s also a fact commonly overlooked that the UK’s population would be declining if the rate of immigration were lower.

HARD-WORKING IMMIGRANTS ARE VITAL IF THE NHS IS TO SURVIVE

Then, of course, there’s education. The education sector is likely to pay one of the highest prices of a Brexit, a fact that even Stuart Robertson, North Devon UKIP Chair, couldn’t deny when I presented it to him. It goes unnoticed, yet a large number of school facilities are at least in part funded by the European Union, particularly new builds. The website of the further education college I attend clearly states that the facilities are funded by the European Social Fund. The EU also subsidises numerous trips, such as the £150 five-day visit to Brussels I was lucky enough to go on with my secondary school.

Crucially, however, current or aspiring university students could really lose out if we choose to leave the EU. The Erasmus Grant is a European Commission initiative that accounts financially for any added costs incurred by UK students studying abroad and ensures tuition fees are completely free at the host university. This also means foreign students can more easily study in the UK, enriching our universities with multicultural diversity. A 17 year-old GB volleyball player I know told me that the Erasmus Mobility Programme fully funded her team of sixteen to travel to and stay for seven days at an Austrian volleyball academy in February. She was also given 530 Euros through Erasmus to cover all living expenses.

And let’s face it – our government hates students. Since 2010, tuition fees have trebled and deluded University Minister Jo Johnson announced in May that they are increasing yet more. Maintenance Grants have also been scrapped and the government is proposing to backfire on yet another promise by retrospectively freezing the student loan repayment threshold at £21,000, despite over 100,000 students signing a petition opposing such a move. For many students in England, Erasmus is one of very few ways out of a debt exceeding £45,000, simply for studying at university.

Employment, cheaper data roaming, migration, education, stability of the population, workers’ rights, the position of women… the benefits for us – young people – in voting to remain are endless. Ultimately, this is about our futures as we will be the demographic most affected by the nation’s decision on June 23rd. We must look beyond the lies, damned lies and statistics and get our voices heard. Politicians will engage with us if we make them.

Words by Ewan Somerville

We must hold government responsible over the Panama papers

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The recent leak of 11.5 million documents from Panamanian-based law firm Mossack Fonseca has sparked global outrage. And quite rightly so. 143 politicians from around the world, 12 of whom are current or former national leaders, were revealed to be evading the law and going to every length to avoid paying tax. Yet the British media and political storm that has erupted since the leak has distracted us from the fundamental issue.

The files exposed by an anonymous hacker have thrown into the spotlight a backroom clique that is used to remaining in the dark, or perhaps sunbathing on the sunny beaches of the British Virgin Islands. Unsuspecting electorates worldwide have reacted with fury to the revelations that numerous individuals and companies are parking their money in offshore funds.

One individual named was Iceland Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, who had failed to disclose the 50% share he had in Wintris Inc, set up in the British Virgin Islands to evade tax, before being elected an MP seven years ago. Mass protests in the Icelandic capital Reykjavik following the leak led to his resignation and the calling of fresh elections.

The British media were quick to react. But before long the questions veered away from the international scandal to the Prime Minister’s private life; David Cameron was forced to confirm that his late father Ian Cameron had owned an offshore fund that paid no tax in Britain.

And so began a week of hell for the Prime Minister, waking up to headlines the following day, such as “Cam’s panned for his dad’s Panama plan” in The Sun. As many political commentators have pointed out, if he had just published his tax returns in the first place instead of drawing the scandal out, his week may have been a lot calmer.

Above all else, the papers revealed to the world that current UK and worldwide government strategies to tackle tax evasion and tax avoidance are nothing short of complete failure. Yet even with that shocking revelation, our media felt it was in the wider public interest to take a scenic tour of tax affairs within the Cameron family tree.

Following media attention on Jimmy Carr’s tax arrangements in June 2012, Mr Cameron called tax avoidance schemes “morally wrong”. He again voiced his “belief” in transparency a year later, announcing a G8 commitment for tax authorities across the world to automatically share information.

The G8 summit’s commitments were only reiterated in Thursday’s deal between Chancellor George Osborne and his counterparts in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, pledging “hammer blow” regulations to ensure the automatic flow of information about the real owners of overseas trusts. The Panama Papers show that policies to ensure the public sharing of information have far too many loopholes.

Oh, and do you remember the petty £130m tax deal that Google settled with the UK in January following decades of tax avoidance? Despite it being a rate of around 3%, Osborne hailed it a “victory”. I doubt this was the type of achievement Mr Cameron had in mind when he spoke passionately in June 2013 on the subject, exclaiming: “when some businesses don’t pay their taxes, it corrodes public trust.”

Quite frankly, there appears to be a significant gap between David Cameron’s virtuous words and his actions. The Prime Minister has repeatedly evaded intervention in the British Virgin Islands, allowing it to continue as an offshore tax haven.

But it’s not only our media that are stumbling around the government’s failed policies to address tax evasion. The Labour party also appears to be treating them as a trivial matter, preferring to play political football with the Prime Minister about his personal tax affairs.

In the first Prime Minister’s Questions since the leak, David Cameron gagged that Corbyn’s tax return is “rather like a metaphor for Labour policy – late, chaotic, inaccurate and uncounted”. 1-0.

“I’ve paid more tax than some of the businesses owned by people he might know quite well” shot back Corbyn, to rapturous laughter. 1-1.

“I’m afraid his figures, rather like his tax return, are inaccurate”, returned David Cameron, to an entertained “Ahhhhh” from his benches. 2-1. And so it went on…

Ultimately, the biggest data leak to journalists in history has drawn public attention to a far wider issue than just the dirty work of a few wealthy individuals. The Panama Papers have shown that government policy to prevent and prosecute those who illegally dodge tax regulations is unfit for purpose.

Crucially, though, the way that Britain’s media and politicians have responded shows that journalists and opposition MPs need to be holding the government to account for failed policies, and the government needs to start tackling tax avoidance and evasion competently, flexibly and transparently.

By Ewan Somerville | @ewansomerville