The real lesson from Greensill and Super League? It's time to give shareholder primacy the red card
The Greensill lobbying scandal and the European Super League debacle both demonstrate what goes wrong when business is designed to enrich only shareholders – and that citizens, fans and other stakeholders are ready to reassert their power and take their custom elsewhere. B Lab UK co-founder James Perry on why the time is ripe to repurpose business – for good.
Last week, it was oligarchs (a former prime minister and other political insiders) trying to financialise the public sector payroll so that they could take a clip on the way through. While bizarrely trying to persuade us – and themselves – that it’s all for the public good.
This week, it was oligarchs (owners of top football clubs) trying to further financialise football by creating a special exclusive club for themselves to eliminate the financial risk of relegation. Paid for by the public.
Obviously both are stories of oligarchs taking working people for a ride. But what else do they have in common?
Like Prince Andrew in his 2019 Newsnight interview, both show that detachment from reality of people who have lived in their own bubble and breathed their own air for too long. Neither argument passes the smell test – whether Greensill’s defence that they did it so that low-paid workers could access their pay faster, or the Super League’s defence that it’s motivated by promoting “a sustainable and competitive environment for the whole football pyramid”.
The opportunity for the fans of these super-clubs is to reassert their power over the vampire squid that has stuck its blood funnel down their necks
Both are hubristic, and both take us, the public, for fools. Greensill thought it could bluster through the nonsense at its heart – that a government with unlimited access to cash needs an expensive financial product for cash-strapped businesses to pay its workforce. The Super League assume that people’s loyalty to the club trumps their common sense, their commitment to their community, their commitment to the game of football, their sense of solidarity with other football fans across the country, their desire for their club to play in domestic competition, the desire for their country to have its best players available to represent it, and so on.
Both are bluffs. The opportunity for the fans of these super-clubs is to call it out and reassert their power over the vampire squid that has stuck its blood funnel down their necks. To rebel, and follow the lead of Grimsby Town. To organise and credibly threaten to take their custom elsewhere.
But more fundamentally, and interestingly perhaps, is that both reveal that the current conception that we have of business is just plain wrong. That a former PM, who seems like a decent person, should fall into the pit of Greensill (which was all wrong from the start) tells us something deeper. That the greatest and most loved football clubs of our country have fallen into an identical pit makes it worth us thinking through what, exactly, that pit is.
If you conceive of business as a machine to enrich shareholders, then that machine quite quickly starts feeding on planet and, in the case of both Greensill and the Super League, people. Whether that be the taxpayer who ends up paying, for no reason other than enrichment of shareholders, premium financing costs to pay its own workers. Or whether it be the football fans, who end up paying for their own football clubs to be converted into giant mining machines targeted on their wallets.
Changing the Companies Act would make it impossible for directors to, in good faith, make the same decisions as those that led to the Super League and Greensill scandals
There is another concept of business – as a machine to enrich people and planet, as well as shareholders. Last week the Better Business Act campaign was launched in the UK parliament to change section 172 of the 2006 Companies Act to make this the default for all business, requiring all company directors to consider the interests of fans and workers alongside those of shareholders. This would make it impossible for those directors to, in good faith, make the same decisions as those that have led to the Super League and Greensill scandals.
As well as the scandals, this week has also seen the announcement of tougher carbon targets for the UK. Such a repurposing of business will serve to liberate company directors to do the right thing, and make it a breach of their duties if they allow their business to wantonly consume natural capital to create profits.
It is an idea whose time has come. Although possibly too late for David Cameron’s reputation, it is hopefully not too late for the beautiful game – nor for our beautiful planet.
- James Perry is the co-chair of social business Cook and co-founder of B Lab UK.
Header image: Leeds United's Ian Poveda wearing a 'Football Is For The Fans' shirt during the warm up prior to kick-off during a Premier League match in April 2021 (credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo)
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