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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Conservative Social Responsibility?

Conservative Party leader David Cameron, speaking to the Oxford Farming Conference on 3 January, created some waves when he criticised alleged behaviour of supermarket chains in relation to their suppliers.

This seemed to be another foray into the realm of 'Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Perhaps the best known example is the comments Cameron made on the selling of chocolates at newsagent counters. CSR is an easy thing for politicians to talk about. We all want companies to be socially responsible. The problems come when thinking about just exactly what we want companies to do and how we might ensure they act accordingly.

For example, while farmers receive subsidies from the state, perhaps helping to them to survive despite low prices for their produce, if the supermarkets did pay more, consumers would probably have to pay more. Perhaps this would mean poorer consumers would need more state aid to maintain their standard of living. If farming subsidies were to be maintained, in the round the taxpayer would have to pay more. That is not to say that this would necessarily be wrong but it is a matter which impacts on public policy. On this the Conservatives are, to date, silent.

However, the Conservatives are using CSR as a way of distancing themselves from 'big business' in the public mind. Do not be fooled. Their lobbying in the City is more confident and more open than it used to be. While their policy remains 'big business as usual but please can we be more nice to each other?' talk of CSR remains just that. Nevertheless, this area is really natural Labour territory and we should not sit by and watch the Tories seize it.

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