Thursday, 19 March 2015

"Welcome to your ASDA"

I don't tend to shop in Asda. I've been put off whenever I've gone in there: it's usually incredibly full of rude and aggressive people! And their stock control is very poor. I also don't like the use of red and yellow labels and the fact a huge amount of their products seem to be rounded up/down to the nearest pound. How can that be an accurate figure of costs + a bit of profit?

However, I walk past the local Asda twice a day and sometimes need something urgently and don't have time to go to the next nearest shop that sells whatever that is. Last night was such an occasion and whilst there, I spotted this:

The cynic in me scoffed and thought it would be mildly humorous to try to leave the store with lots of things I hadn't paid for, pretending I believed this meaningless bullcrap. Then I thought I could express what MY Asda would actually be like, if I suddenly ended up owning the ruinous behemoth.

So here are a few of the things I would change if Asda really was mine:

1) Stop shafting producers. Sell cheap produce if you must but label it as such and also have a different range where producers are paid a decent amount - and label that as such too. Then shoppers will make an informed choice: some will only be able to afford the cheap option and many who can afford the better product will choose to continue shafting farmers etc. But some will choose the more producer-friendly option.

2) Offer good-quality meat. For example, very few people these days buy barn eggs but most still buy standard, intensively-farmed chicken. It's often very difficult to get hold of free-range alternatives but some people are willing to pay the extra. Again, label it as such - perhaps even with photos of where the meat comes from.

3) Stop offers on very unhealthy food and have some offers on more healthy, fresh and less processed options. Healthy options cost a lot more and people will inevitably choose the cheap, salty, sugary processed products anyway so there is no need for extra offers on top.

4) Work with and promote local shops. I've seen Asdas that have taken over whole towns. Inside, you can find banks, shoe shops, key cutters, charity shops, chemists, opticians, even GP surgeries, and all sorts of things that should be on the high street instead of hidden inside these huge hangar-like beige and grey monstrosities that blight the view from streets away. I can see our local Asda from our bedroom window, even though it's a mile away and has many streets of houses and churches in between - and it's not even a big Asda store. If it really was MY Asda, I would want to keep the local community alive with proper shops, amenities, pubs/bars etc rather than the betting shops, pawnbrokers and payday lenders, charity shops, takeaways and one or two other struggling businesses that aren't starved out of existence.

Yes, MY Asda would quickly lose profits but it would still make money, and contrary to popular thought, you don't have to be the biggest at what you do. If it really was my Asda, it would be really quite different.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Surprise truth: making people poorer doesn't reduce the benefits bill

One of the biggest bees in the Tories' collective bonnet (it's surprisingly easy to picture them in bonnets, like Little Lord Fauntleroys) is the benefits bill. They feel very strongly that too many people are getting too much money from the state but their answer to this isn't to look at why the benefits bill is so high, their answer is just to cut it.

The tories' demented stuck record constant claims that their "long term economic plan" is working because more people are in work than ever and unemployment has fallen struggles under scrutiny. Just because less people are claiming unemployment benefit, that doesn't mean fewer people are out of work. They're probably just horribly ashamed and why wouldn't they be? The TV, newspapers and politicians all tell them they should be. Employment statistics also don't show how many hours people are working or how much they're being paid. If the "long term economic plan" is working, how come 500,000 more people are now claiming housing benefit than under the last government? Forgive me if I'm being thick but that would be a massive increase in the benefits bill, wouldn't it? And surely if the tories' claims were true, there should be fewer people claiming housing benefit?

The tory figures and the truth, as usual, doesn't add up.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

People in the private sector are constantly trying to con us

People representing the private sector (very much including the current government) are always trying to convince us that the private sector is great and wealth-creating whilst the public sector is bloated and useless.

Here are a few examples of how some in the private sector are trying to con us:

1) Constant retail sales and offers which aren't worth the bright paper and expensive adverts they're broadcast on. Most of the time, so called reductions are based on the cost in one part of the country which may well have been set just so the retailer can later have a nationwide sale.

2) Excessive small print and superfast babbling of terms, conditions and figures relating to credit agreements on anything from cars to credit cards. They're trying to confuse you and bore you to tears until you just buy it anyway.

3) 'Umbrella' companies. Huge invisible behemoths hover over large companies, dipping their fat fingers into anything that will make them profit and they don't want you to know. They'd rather you were unaware that the failed care provider you heard about in the news is also running your unreliable local train service and the immigration centre (which has also been in the news for ill treatment of its inmates). They'd prefer you didn't realise that the huge company manufacturing those ubiquitous crisps also make the ones you think are a bit less big and mean and the 'healthy' drink branded as though it's made by a small, ethical company.

4) 'Separate' arms of one large company where one part supplies the other at a massive loss so they can cut the company's total tax bill by millions (or sometimes even billions).

5) Avoiding tax by claiming their head office is in Luxembourg or some tiny island somewhere, when in fact all that's there is a P.O. Box or one person with a phone and a locked door who knows nothing (or won't tell).

6) Pretending that all of their orders are placed through Ireland or somewhere else in the EU which charges less tax when the order was placed, stored, packed, shipped and delivered within the UK.

7) Trying to get out of giving staff contracts until they absolutely have to, just in case they want to make you redundant (this happened to me).

8) Cutting corners when it comes to cleanliness and public safety.

9) Using ingredients nobody has heard of to make production cheaper and shelf-life longer and then changing their names when people become wiser to what they actually are (do  you ever see E numbers anymore? Do you think those ingredients are no longer used?).

10) Avoiding expensive UK recycling costs by shipping off waste to places such as India and West Africa (where they become places of work for poor children who end up breathing in toxic fumes and melting their skin as they rummage through, looking for something with any kind of value).

11) Avoiding expensive manufacturing costs in countries with health and safety and other regulations designed to protect poorly-paid manual workers by using third-world factories where pay and conditions are terrible.

12) Lying to us about the 'health benefits' of their product or scheme.

13) Lobbying governments to keep their products and services legal or free from regulation in the face of studies which show it is harmful or that malpractice is at play.

I could go on all day but I need to get on to the 'bloated' public sector: why might it be that councils and other public sector organisations have to be quite big? Could a large part of it be because of all of the above?! Laws and regulations constantly have to be refined and tweaked so that loopholes etc are closed. We also need big teams of people keeping checks on all of these bad practices.

Constant checking on private sector practices costs us a lot of money. Meanwhile, big companies' profits are hidden away from the treasury in all manner of schemes. Is that fair?

Sunday, 8 March 2015

The kind of coalition that might work - and could save the UK

An obvious idea occurred to me yesterday, inspired by party leaders' different warnings. Cameron was warning that a vote for Labour could let the SNP in and how that would break up the UK. Meanwhile Miliband was warning Scottish voters that voting for anyone other than Labour, including SNP, could land them a Tory government.

The SNP appear to be on course to win the vast majority of seats in Scotland. If Labour are in a position to form a coalition and the SNP are willing to join it, that could be a great deal for the UK, couldn't it? Nicola Sturgeon appears to be moving the party on from Salmond's big speak and bluster approach. He spent his time in power trying to get as much for Scotland as possible seemingly  without having any other clear direction. Now I get the impression that Sturgeon feels many people were put off voting yes in the independence referendum because they weren't convinced that Salmond could really pull off his bold claims. What I hear her say speaks more about direction and ideals than separation although separation is necessary if the direction the Westminster government is taking the UK is far removed from what the Scottish people want. She wears her working class roots on her sleeve and suggests that the SNP provide the alternative option that Labour used to.

A coalition of Labour and SNP could deliver two things. If the largest Scottish party is part of the UK government, that could bring post-referendum stability. And in tandem with a party whose leader (like her predecessor) cites Harold Wilson as the greatest UK prime minister, Labour could have a reason to move back to the left.

Of course the Tories and UKIP and their chums in the media would cause a huge fuss, claiming that Scots who wanted out are now making policies for England. But Labour and the SNP will have five years to make life better for the majority of the population.

I would vote for that.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Why and how do our ideals change?

YouGov research (see this i100 article) suggests that young people are more concerned about the environment and the living wage than immigration and other results indicate similar differences between what they care about and the policies the main parties are offering. If only we could age them to see what their answers would be as older people (if we waited for them to age naturally, other factors come into play).

The popular belief is that people become more right-wing, or at least more conservative with age. In theory, we are more likely to support austerity, lower taxes and policies that are seen to slow down the rate of change a country might go through as we get older. Some of this makes sense: we want to conserve what we have because we've earned it and we're used to it. But I wonder whether there are other reasons. Do we change our opinions, having been bombarded with conservative, right-wing messages for longer? Do we just become less tolerant and a little more selfish as we become - and sadly though I wish it weren't, I think this is true - less important to society?

My own belief development hasn't quite followed this route. When I was younger, I was much more judgmental and felt that there were far too many people who could get a job but didn't want one and that most people committing crime did it because they were bad people. I probably would have also said we pay too much tax. Now I know better: I'm much more well-informed and look up facts for myself online, rather than accepting common opinion as fact. I now think that the majority of people do want to work and even those who don't aren't necessarily to blame, because employment hasn't been the 'norm' in their families or social groups since the end of the traditional working-class industries. I now think that most people who commit crime do it because they have to to get by, or because they've had such a shit life they need to take it out on something, somehow, or simply because they have nothing else to do and have been left so bereft of opportunities that nothing else occurs to them. I also know that countries with higher taxes and higher public spending tend to have a better quality of life. Good salaries in public sector jobs push up private sector salaries too (they have to compete) and higher salaries means everyone pays more income tax and if spending rises too, everyone gets better public services which improves everyone's quality of life. The less tax we pay, the poorer our public services are and the poorer our quality of life. And private sector salaries stay low because they can. It's pretty much as simple as that.

I'm probably a bad example and I would still guess that people tend to become more conservative as they get older. But does it have to be this way? Judging by this research (admittedly not exhaustive but polling rarely is), most young people voting now would not vote conservative or UKIP but here we are with the conservatives running the country (and Lib Dems mostly toeing the party line when it counts) and UKIP all over the news. What if that weren't the case and more left-wing policies were discussed on the BBC and in the papers? If people were more informed about the other side of taxation (it's not bad: it pays for good things we all need and want) and of the roots unemployment, poverty and criminality than they were about immigration, 'benefits scroungers' and problems in the NHS, might they be more inclined to stick to the more caring, progressive ideals of their youth?

There is a chance, of course, that today's young people might not become more conservative with age. The environment and caring for it is something they've been brought up with and equality and diversity are, hopefully, concepts that hardly occur to them because they're less likely to think any other way. The internet provides a far broader perspective on politics than the mainstream media ever have and with actual facts at your fingertips, it's easier to find the truth behind the spin.

We can live in hope.