The Volkswagen affair was a missed opportunity for the left

You couldn’t ask for a clearer demonstration of the dominance of corporate power over democratic governments


The unbelievable scandal at Volkswagen shows how flat-footed progressives can be in responding to events that completely vindicate many of their arguments.

Here we have a major corporation flagrantly misleading consumers, compromising public health and manipulating the pitifully weak regulations set in the face of intense industry lobbying, CEO Martin Winterkorn, paid in excess of £10 million a year, departs with a pension pot reportedly worth more than £20 million, despite having presided over a fraud that threatens the existence of the company.

You couldn’t imagine a clearer demonstration of the total dominance of corporate power over democratic governments; the contempt of big business for the public interest when it conflicts with the pursuit of profit; or the vulgar, disproportionate and completely unjustifiable levels of top pay that now prevail at major corporations.

This would all be maddening enough were it an isolated incident. But similarly dreadful goings-on in other major businesses and industries have become too commonplace to dismiss as anything other than a systemic problem with corporate culture, structure and practices.

For example, there are strong suggestions that other car companies are implicated in manipulating tests for nitrogen oxide. The Banking sector has been through LIBOR and Forex manipulation, Mexican drug-money laundering and PPI mis-selling.

Tesco have been dogged by allegations of anomalous accounting practices, while the wider supermarket sector’s negligent approach to hygiene standards in its supply chain was literally brought home to consumers in the form of horsemeat lasagna.

Phone-hacking at News International; health and safety standards at BP; consumers unknowingly kept on more expensive energy tariffs by the energy companies. The list goes on – and these were just the ones they didn’t get away with.

In each case, avaricious companies prioritised the pursuit of profit over public wellbeing or ethical considerations, with dismal consequences. Previously lionised business leaders, paid hundreds of times their ordinary employees, were forced to concede they didn’t realise what was going on at their company. Inadequate regulators and internal corporate governance structures failed to tackle the problem at source.

It is not surprising that little is ever done to remedy this, given the fact that corporate power as a governing institution now carries as much heft as elected Parliaments or politicians. The German motor industry, for example, is reported to have had considerable influence over the German government’s representations to the EU over the testing conditions that enabled Volkswagen to dodge compliance with emissions standards.

In the UK, government departments are chaired by non-executive ‘advisers’ from corporations like BP, GSK and British Gas. The Regulatory Policy Committee, overseeing regulation of UK businesses, is dominated by business interests.

The Volkswagen affair ought to have provided an opening to talk about this threat to democracy and public wellbeing, but it hasn’t really done so. Yesterday, Comment is Free was carrying one solitary piece on Volkswagen while Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t sought to link the scandal to the wider question of corporate power, even though it ought to be one issue where his concerns mirror those of the general public.

An opportunity missed, perhaps.

Luke Hildyard is a contributing editor at Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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12 Responses to “The Volkswagen affair was a missed opportunity for the left”

  1. John D Traynor

    The left or the opponents of capitalism? As long as the so-called left is unwilling to position itself in direct opposition to capitalism then it will have to continue to put up with corporate criminality. Rosa Luxemburg realised she was wrong to suggest reform, the so-called left should do likewise.

  2. stevep

    The British State has rolled over onto it`s back and had it`s belly tickled by Corporate interests for decades.
    We as British citizens need to decide whether, if we have any power to influence matters, we want Corporatism or democracy.
    We can`t have both.

  3. Charles Jurcich

    This is where the EU needs major reform. Groups like “BusinessEurope” (including the CBI) regularly attend advisory briefings to the directorates in Europe, labelled in the records as “Trade Unions”. Of course these meetings are not advertised and are for those invited only, hence real trade unions would not even know they were not being invited.

    See Prof Bill Mitchell’s blog:
    Make no mistake, the core of the EU is right wing, and the social chapter is mostly window dressing.

  4. jed shed

    and yet ‘the left’ Tony Blair tells Labour it needs a heart transplant whilst the right actively signs up and votes the left into Labours leadership thinking it is ending Labour forever. Perhaps the ‘center right’ should wake up and realise that there are profound consequences for voting ‘I’m all right jack’.

  5. Keith M

    As a major shareholder the state of Lower Saxony (sdp/green) should be demanding structural change and transparency.

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