The politics of The People’s Supermarket

A visit to the reportedly radical store reveals that it doesn’t quite live up to its posh backers’ expectations.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

I’m standing in the basement of The People’s Supermarket in Clerkenwell, London, waiting to talk to co-founder and general manager Kate Bull. One thing is for certain: she’s not in it for the glamour.

To my right is a small counter for flowers. Ahead of me are boxes of crisps with special flavours created for Comic Relief, like Jimmy Con Carrne and Stephen Fry-up, and packs of mundane, brand-name products like Sarson’s malt vinegar. In the corner, there’s even a crate of Pot Noodle: not exactly the kind of fare you’d expect to find in a shop that’s being promoted for its right-on, ethical, support-the-small-producer credentials.

To my left, Bull is sat on a sofa in the ‘member’s area’ chatting away on the phone. She’s hidden behind a clothes line of bright yellow People’s Supermarket t-shirts (they can’t afford a tumble dryer). I’m waiting a while; the affable Bull could babble away for England.

When she gets off the phone, we walk into the kitchen and she introduces me to anyone who’s passing while she makes some tea. There’s thirtysomething Nigel from Islington, one of the first to join up back in June last year, and who is now a paid duty manager. When his shift finishes, he carries on working as a volunteer for a few extra hours. Then there’s Osman, a young man who came to the store on a Future Jobs Fund placement scheme, but has also just got a job as a duty manager. It’s been a good couple of weeks for Osman: he’s also just been accepted on to a civil engineering degree course at University College London.

After that, the flurry of introductions mean I miss the names. But there’s a lot of people working here now that have come from government employment schemes. The schemes pay the minimum wage, and the supermarket bumps that up by an extra £2 per hour to match the officially approved London Living Wage. Bull is, well, bullish about the opportunity the store provides. ‘It’s giving people a network’, she enthuses.

There’s quite a disconnect between the real People’s Supermarket and Channel 4’s The People’s Supermarket. In the real world, the store stocks what will sell. As Bull points out, rather sensibly, the ethical and environmental aims of the supermarket are meaningless if the store doesn’t become commercially viable. As we talk, the store has had a break-even week for the first time, taking just over £20,000 through the tills. Breaking even means providing the things the members – and the passing trade – actually want. If that means convenience food brands, if it means being ‘a bit Tesco’, as one slightly disgruntled member said in the first episode of the TV show, well so be it.

The People’s Supermarket, on the other hand, seems to want to provide its audience with a morally improving hour every week. Learn how the evil corporates are wrecking the high street! See how the big supermarket chains screw over the small farmer! Look at how much food waste Tesco, Asda and the rest create! Sadly, the TV show spends far too much time lamenting how we’re screwing up the planet and not enough time on the fascinating social clash between the working-class mums who want to buy chips and the Guardian-reading greenies who want organic artichokes. After Wife Swap, we could have had Shop Swap. Instead, we get lectures.

Then again, The People’s Supermarket is a weird shop. While the Rochdale Pioneers created a cooperative store in north-west England in 1844 as a means of getting food they couldn’t otherwise afford, there is no such material basis to The People’s Supermarket. Indeed, the premise of the shop and the TV show is that food is probably too cheap and there’s too much of it. Far from people struggling to get what they need, as they did in the past, the supermarkets today provide them with bountiful supplies at good prices. As a result, even fairly poor people can enjoy a previously unheard-of range of food.

Even the way the store was set up is a sign of the times. The public face of the store is Arthur Potts Dawson, formerly executive chef at Jamie Oliver’s train-the-unemployed restaurant Fifteen (as featured in another TV show, Jamie’s Kitchen). Potts Dawson is the son of a top model (Kari-Ann Moller) and step-nephew of Rolling Stone frontman Mick Jagger. His upbringing would have been a world away from the council housing estates near The People’s Supermarket. Then, the idea of the supermarket was thrashed out in discussion with David Barrie, a former TV presenter and all-round urban creative, and a TV production company, Wall to Wall. It’s rather telling of the state of both TV and social innovation that a project like this gets moulded to the needs of the TV series as much as the people it is supposed to serve.

Kate Bull was a former senior executive at another UK retail giant, Marks & Spencer. She became disenchanted with life at the top when one reorganisation after another meant screwing over colleagues who had become friends. She left to start her own business, a retail consultancy, which she put aside to get involved with the People’s Supermarket. As Bull tells me, Potts Dawson was described to her as a nice, idealistic man who was clueless about retail and in desperate need of someone who could explain to him how to set up a supermarket.

So, the cast of characters already seems to jar with the idea of a ‘people’s’ supermarket. Add to that the support that the shop has had. The local council, Camden, stumped up £25,000 to support the project while the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation provided £110,000 to cover Kate Bull’s salary (she tells me she’d gone 18 months without receiving any pay). Many other things have been donated. As we saw in episode three of the TV show, shown last Sunday, the supermarket’s entire in-store kitchen was provided by someone who didn’t need it anymore, while the shop’s staff includes plenty of volunteers and job-scheme workers who are mostly paid by the government.

Yet the ‘people’ don’t seem ever to have asked for the supermarket, and as the show reveals, they need a great deal of persuasion to believe that working in shop for four hours per month is a price worth paying for goods that are, by and large, more expensive than those to be obtained in the numerous branches of the major chains nearby. In fairness, The People’s Supermarket is, apparently, cheaper than most of the big boys for that not-quite-pretty-enough fruit and veg, bread, eggs and, Bull tells me, condoms. If you want protection, you know where to go.

I like Kate Bull and I like the fact that rather than get all defensive after my previous critical article about The People’s Supermarket – which was sent to her by ‘nine different people’ – she wants to show me what’s going on. As a government- and foundation-funded scheme to help people to get into the world of work, it certainly seems to have more going for it than the usual outsourced ‘provider-led’ and soulless job schemes. There is a genuine esprit de corps in the supermarket; many of the people who work there – like Nigel – really believe in what it’s doing. It’s The People’s Supermarket versus The World.

But that’s not really what The People’s Supermarket is about to most of those who support it from afar, who would probably be horrified by crisps and Pot Noodle. Rather, it’s a statement: that big is bad and small is beautiful. But ‘big’, meaning a social division of labour and enormous economies of scale, has done far more for most people than the independent store and the small farmer could ever do. The People’s Supermarket is a rejection of all that, not led by ‘the people’ but by well-to-do folk who are disenchanted with the modern world. And ultimately, I’d argue, that makes it a symbol of something quite reactionary.

There are lots of problems that are worth devoting time and energy to fixing. Supermarkets really aren’t one of them.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked and blogs about food at Panic on a Plate.

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Topics Politics


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