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Thomas Sutcliffe: Here's how to turn up the heat on Tesco

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

I have always assumed the best way to express my dislike of Tesco is by not spending money. Or, to be more precise, by finding a retailer that is marginally less aggressive in its colonisation of the high street and spending my money there instead.

I have no illusions that this always makes sense. Should Tesco falter, for example, there is little doubt that one of its competitors would be more than happy to take up the challenge of seemingly rendering every British high street indistinguishable. And I am conscious too that my prejudice against the company may be a middle-class luxury, one not as readily exercised by anyone whose budget depends on Tesco's ability to extract the best possible price from its suppliers.

But, rational or not, it is Tesco that pops up in my mind when I require an emblem for a retailer throwing its weight around – a stereotype that wasn't exactly eroded by Tesco Lotus's recent decision to sue a Thai columnist for writing disobliging (and, he eventually conceded, inaccurate) remarks about the scale of its expansion in that country.

The dislike hardened a little further when I read about Tesco's response to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's attempt to raise the issue of poultry welfare at the company's annual general meeting. In a cheeky bit of entryism, the food writer and campaigner bought himself some Tesco shares, got together with a group of like-minded shareholders and tabled a resolution urging Tesco to raise the standards for the chickens it sells in its stores.

Tesco responded by telling him they would only address the resolution if HF-W paid the £86,888 it would cost to print and circulate the necessary paperwork to all its shareholders. And, although one's first instinct is to make derisive chicken noises at this tactic, I suppose you can just about see their point. They could have waived this requirement, but since the resolution is expressly designed to embarrass them they don't have a strong incentive to do that – and it is possible that less high-minded shareholders might object to such generosity.

It certainly sounds attractive to me though, which is why I checked out – the website on which Fearnley-Whittingstall is pursuing his campaign for better conditions for farmed chickens and chicken farmers. He reveals that the deadline for raising the money is noon tomorrow and offers browsers the opportunity to help by making a donation or by posting bids for a fund-raising auction.

The price, at time of writing, for Hugh to come to your house and cook a non-Tesco sourced chicken dinner for six was £2,159. That kind of grand gesture is a little above my pay-grade, so instead (once I had found the link, which isn't nearly prominent enough, by the way) I made a direct contribution and enjoyed a little surge of pleasure at playing a part in Obama-style grass-roots political funding. And since more than 140,000 people have signed up to Fearnley-Whittingstall's campaign for a free-range future, it would take only about 40p per signatory if everybody pitched in – because H F-W has already put in £30,000 of his own money to get things going.

There isn't a lot of time left to ensure that big money loses out to small money – but nobody should think it isn't achievable. To quote the inspiring words of the Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy, cited on the company's corporate responsibility web page, "'Every little helps' can become a great deal when everyone pulls in the same direction."

Mrs T the mythical creature

Just a few weeks after the apotheosis of Mary Whitehouse, BBC4 offers us another unlikely heroine in The Long Road to Finchley – with a political comedy about the beginning of Margaret Thatcher's career that might even have Arthur Scargill cheering her on, as she confronts the ingrained misogyny of the Tory Party brigadiers.

Well, perhaps not. Although Andrea Riseborough's portrayal of the young Thatcher, left, is teasingly heavy on sexual allure and even proposes that she might have caused a flutter in Ted Heath's famously unresponsive heart. As history, it is risible but it does confirm the astonishing speed at which Mrs Thatcher is travelling from political matter of fact to durable cultural myth. Has anyone else done it so fast?

* I have mixed feelings about Kensington and Chelsea trying out a scheme that allows cyclists to go the wrong way up specified one-way streets.

As a cyclist, I like the idea of my form of transport becoming even more convenient. On the other hand, as a cyclist who always stops at red lights and believes cyclists who don't are Thatcherite deregulationists with no sense of social contract, I think it is a lousy idea to crowbar open the rift between motorists and cyclists even further.

I am all for any discrepancy in the rules that makes cycling safer – such as giving us a five-yard start at red lights – but dodging oncoming drivers who believe, with some justification, that they have right of way, sounds like a recipe for a potentially fatal conflict of interests.

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When a company acts as arrogantly as Tesco, it is a sure sign that it's decline is about too start.

Posted by PeteS | 10.06.08, 08:23 GMT

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Pay-grade isn't about money but rank

Posted by Paul Danon | 10.06.08, 08:15 GMT

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