Anti-politics isn’t the answer, as the grilling of Mike Ashley showed

Published by The Independent on 7/6/16

Interest in politics is dwindling, supposedly. The mainstream narrative tells us that political disengagement is rife.

The uninspiring manner in which the EU referendum, and recent London Mayoral election, has been carried out has led to the emergence of anti-politics. It manifests itself in the apathetic view that politics should be the concern of politicians; it should be compartmentalised from everyday life.

From that perspective, politics is nothing but uninspiring men making uninspiring comments using uninspiring statistics.

This anti-political stance stems from a disregard for the value of our democratic system. Fortunately, the appearance of Mike Ashley, the founder of Sports Direct, in front of the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee suggests that politics isn’t so bad.

The majority shareholder previously refused to appear in front of MPs, but relented after boldly stating that he has “nothing to hide”.

Crucially, his meeting with the MPs demonstrated that our elected officials are still able to hold big business to account. The committee grilled the businessmen on the horrific working conditions in Sports Direct’s Shirebrook factory. Workers at the factory are not paid overtime and have wages docked for turning up even a minute late. The committee even heard that one woman was allegedly offered a better contract in return for sexual favours, while another had to give birth in the factory’s toilets. It’s not surprising Ashley admitted he wouldn’t want his children to work there.

Of course, parliamentary committee meetings are hardly inspirational Les Mis-style political tools. They are often used by MPs to grandstand their own perspectives on trivial issues.

Ashley – who labelled his company as “a victim of our own success” – was also far from transparent. The statement “Let me explain that completely clearly. I’ll give an analogy…” led committee chair Iain Wright MP to observe Ashley sounded “like a government minister”. Ashley later explained that “the value of Sports Direct is the people”. One can only hope he wasn’t referring to the unfortunate people working for his company.

The questioning of Ashley does, however, demonstrate the importance of MPs asking business leaders uncomfortable questions. It forces leaders to recognise that the reputations of their businesses are at stake. For the first time in three years, Ashley admitted that too many of his employees are on zero-hours contracts. He could now face sanctions from HMRC.

In a letter sent to his employees just before his appearance, he claimed that Sports Direct’s CEO would not receive his £4m bonus due to the company’s “difficult year” – because, of course, bringing a child into the world in a factory toilet is pretty “difficult”.

Importantly, the investigation into poor working conditions at Sports Direct demonstrates that politics can be of use to the working citizen. The political chastisement of Mike Ashley neatly highlights democracy in action: elected officials standing up for those who elected them. Anti-politics is understandable, but anti anti-politics is needed to create change.

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