Short stirs up trouble for shops

By Stephen Castle Political Editor
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Clare Short, Labour's outspoken overseas aid spokeswoman, is urging shoppers to put pressure on stores which sell goods made by exploited Third World labour, a move which could lead to boycotts of supermarkets and high-street shops.

Giving her backing to a campaign led by the charity Christian Aid, Ms Short said yesterday that co-ordinated consumer power was the answer to the excesses of "international capital".

"If companies have bad records, people will have the power to shift their resources. I want people to flex their muscles. Then they will have created a weapon they can use when they want," she said.

Her stance will alarm some in the business community, and could land her in trouble again with the Labour leadership, which has been assiduously courting business, the supermarkets in particular.

They are the principal targets of Christian Aid's "ethical audit", which Ms Short will formally endorse tomorrow. The charity's four-year campaign will start by pointing out which stores buy goods from Third World countries with poor records.

The Shadow Overseas Development Minister, who has in the past offended Labour chiefs with remarks about tax and drugs, and has written critically about the spin-doctors surrounding Tony Blair, was demoted by the party leader in the Shadow Cabinet reshuffle this year.

Yesterday she said consumer campaigns could be an important part of politics in the future. She pointed to the Co-operative Bank, which has an ethical investment plan and which has challenged other banks not to invest in the arms trade.

"People ought to get on to their banks, or switch to the Co-op, as I did after NatWest employed Douglas Hurd [the former Tory Cabinet minister]. We are living in stultifying times when people are dispirited with politics. But people can use their purchasing power and their saving power.

"Christian Aid is asking people to put pressure on their supermarkets. I am inviting everyone to get involved. Everyone is talking about globalisation; this is about the enlarged power of people as consumers."

Christian Aid will ask people to apply pressure on supermarkets which import products produced under exploitative conditions. This means "positive engagement" between customers and stores, in the first instance, with the implicit threat of a boycott if that fails.

A spokesman for the charity said: "We will certainly provide enough information for people to ask questions. That information needs to be available for people to be able to shop with confidence. They should know what they are buying."

Ms Short urged people to "get behind the Co-op and Christian Aid. Show there is a lot of decency in this country and that people in the Third World are not exploited to provide the cheapest produce for us".

Labour's overseas development team, she said, will press for an internationally- agreed code of conduct for trans-national corporations.