Simon Kelner: Why Clegg's 'John Lewis Britain' is a sensible idea

Kelner's View
  • @Simon_Kelner

My Auntie Bertha has never been a football fan. In fact, she has only gone to one football match in her long lifetime. It just happened to be the World Cup final of 1966 at Wembley when, of course, England beat West Germany to become world champions for the first and only time.

Knowing that it doesn't get much better than this, I suppose Auntie Bertha never saw the need to go to another football match. She was there only because her employers at the time had some spare tickets for the game and distributed them, by means of a free draw, to lucky members of staff.

So which British company was it that behaved in such a spontaneous and collegiate way to their employees? You may have already guessed it. Auntie Bertha worked in the lighting department of John Lewis.

Ever since I heard this story, I have had a warm feeling towards John Lewis. Can you imagine a big company these days behaving in such a generous fashion? Oh, we've got some tickets for the 100m final at the Olympics. We were going to give them to favoured clients and investors, but we've decided to hand them out on the shop floor.

John Lewis has become a byword for good staff relations and exemplary corporate ethics, and – guess what – this then feeds through to its public image. Its employees are called partners, and, at all levels, have a stakeholding in the company and share in the company's profits, while its communications with the outside world – through its homely Christmas television ads or by means of its "never knowingly undersold" slogan – underline a wholesome and trusted image.

Little wonder, therefore, that politicians are so keen to associate themselves with the John Lewis brand. Yesterday, it was Nick Clegg, who expressed the desire to turn Britain into a "John Lewis economy" in which we all had a stake, rather than the current state of affairs, in which Bob Diamond and his bunch of bankers trouser their huge bonuses while the rest of us are left to take the austerity pill.

"I want this to be the decade of employee share ownership," said the Deputy Prime Minister, adding that too much wealth in Britain is "monopolised by the few". Ignoring for a minute that this was something that Gordon Brown first floated before the last election - and that "John Lewis Britain" comes a bit close on the heels of "Alarm Clock Britain" – Clegg's suggestion that companies should be given tax incentives to offer their employees shares is surely a sensible one.

Popular capitalism may be something of a contradiction in terms these days – in fact, rarely has capitalism been more unpopular – but even the Conservatives have embraced the idea that wealth creation should be a more inclusive process. Other companies have followed the lead of John Lewis and have put their ownership in the hands of staff but, in time-honoured fashion, the value of your investment can go down as well as up.

An overwhelming majority of Northern Rock employees had signed up for shares that became as good as worthless when the bank was put into public ownership.

Unfortunately for them, their share scheme was not advertised as "never knowingly undervalued".