Comment has focused on the several companies praised by Cameron who are also clients of the PR firm owned by his £276,000-a-year strategist and friend, Steve Hilton.
But it is worth looking beyond that, at what Cameron was actually saying – and what that says about his new look Tories.
Cameron endorsed the CSR – Corporate Social Responsibility – policies of companies such as Asda, BP, Nike and Coca-Cola.
Just the briefest look at the way Asda treats its workers and trade unions, or impacts on local communities and suppliers in the developing word might suggest that this is a company rather far from any normal person’s understanding of responsible social behaviour.
BP’s record includes the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the Alaskan oil spill and the Texas City explosion. Last week, Rev Jesse Jackson led a protest against BP in Houston, speaking against price fixing, employment discrimination and unsafe working conditions.
The corporation spent July settling out of court with a group of Colombian farmers for a pipleline project that saw them forced off their land by paramilitaries. As the Colombia Solidarity Campaign said, “this case blows a massive hole through BP’s much publicised claims to social responsibility.”
Coca-Cola‘s greatest hits include monopolistic practices, racial discrimination, widespread environmental degradation, and human rights abuses in Colombia, where many union organisers in Coke bottling plants have been killed.
And it would be hard to miss Nike‘s ethics problem, after all it was on Panorama. But there’s plenty more on NikeWatch, and Labour Behind The Label points out that Nike itself admits that up to half its factories pay below the legal minimum wage and most insist on 60-hour weeks or more. They have also rejected the concept of a living wage and moved production away from unionised factories. Nike’s own CEO, Phil Knight, admitted that “the Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime and arbitrary abuse.”
Cameron’s concept of social responsibility seems to be simply installing showers at the office or making a token donation to charity – this is Cameron the PR man talking, not someone who is serious about standing up to big business.
It is on issues like this that Labour can expose the gap between Cameron’s fluffy rhetoric and his actual policies – in this case, he’s actually made it quite clear that his “new” approach to CSR is to ask companies nicely not to sell chocolate to kids but resist on principle any kind of action by the state. Not much new about that.
The question is whether Labour’s current leadership is still too busy fighting the last war to know how to win this one.