Every little helps so why can't Tesco sell locally-made goods?
What to do about Tesco? Once again, the retail giant has been at the forefront of debate about the future of the British economy. On the one hand, it announced the creation of 20,000 new jobs across the UK to add to its workforce of 290,000.
On the other hand, it received a lot of flak from left-wing protesters for taking part in the Government's so-called "workfare" scheme, which demands some kind of work experience from the unemployed in return for their benefits. This does not seem a bad idea to me and, with the company already employing some 70,000 under-25s, Tesco is an excellent partner for getting young people into training.
Of course, in Stoke-on-Trent, the Tesco footprint is pretty unmissable. Its supermarkets in Hanley and Longton are vast, while smaller stores dot the Six Towns.
And it provides good jobs, decent training, an active community programme and a good awareness of their environmental responsibilities. But where it does fall down is buying local.
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When I wandered around the monster Hanley store the other month, I was shocked to see shoddy, foreign crockery on sale. Here. In the heart of The Potteries.
So I got in touch with the Tesco bosses. And this week I received a response: "Unfortunately we are not able to stock a selection of local crockery as our hardlines are ordered nationally so that we can provide our customers with the best possible value for money through ordering larger volumes at a competitive cost price."
Well, of course, it is "able" to do it. It has simply chosen not to. And I'm sure that, if it did order a large volume from a Stoke-on-Trent supplier, our pottery businesses could provide them with a good deal. So, rather than sourcing from Burslem, Hanley or Longton, Tesco thinks it OK to import from Indonesia, China and Vietnam into the birthplace of the modern pottery industry.
While I was fuming about this response, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband addressed the issue of supporting British industry in a speech to the Engineering Employers Federation: "From our Government to our culture, we need pride and patriotism if our British firms are to succeed."
In policy terms, what Ed suggested was a more effective use of Government procurement policy to boost British firms. This should not be about bunging taxpayers' money to loss-leading firms but making sure that the likes of Sheffield Forgemasters, BAE Systems, and Derby-based Bombardier train-makers get a proper look-in on big Government deals. Rather than just focusing on the contract bottom-line, we need to think what's right for Britain more broadly. It is what Germany, Italy and France do.
We also need a credible investment strategy in industry. Nissan's announcement of 2,000 jobs in the North East is proof positive of how this policy can work. It was Peter Mandelson, when he was Business Secretary, who decided to support and fund the Nissan management plan. The result of investment yesterday is jobs today.
What we also need are banks willing to lend money to our manufacturers; a strong science base with decent money spent on research and development; and a business culture focused not on short-term speculation but long-term returns.
Ed Miliband also gave his support to the Made in Britain mark, which some 350 manufacturers have signed up to. This is about patriotism, not protectionism.
And I wish Tesco could be a part of it. As we seek to rebalance the British economy, away from an over-reliance upon financial services back toward manufacturing and industry, our retail sector has an important role. If the "big four" supermarkets want to be more than anonymous corporations, they need to support local businesses and suppliers. They need to become a much more collaborative part of our economic infrastructure, beginning here in Stoke-on-Trent. So if any pot-bank boss thinks they can provide Tesco with a competitive hardline order, can I suggest a visit to Hanley?