Supermarket Iceland is producing a manifesto on behalf of customers – but should retailers meddle in politics?

Posted in: Business and the labour market, Culture and policy, Democracy and voter preference, Food and agriculture, Political ideologies, Public services, UK politics

is a Professor of Business and Society at the University of Bath. This article was originally published by The Conversation on 3 May 2024.

 

The food retailer Iceland has pledged it will give its customers a voice during the UK’s upcoming election. If that sounds like a good idea, then it could be that our democracy is in trouble.

The UK will probably have a general election in the second half of 2024 when more than 45 million registered voters will have their say. There will also be countless opinion polls on voting intentions and the parties and their policies.

Some voters are also getting to air their views through a different platform. Iceland recently announced that it was launching a “customer election manifesto”.

The idea is that a group of seven customers will meet monthly and give their views on political issues in the run-up to the election. These will then be combined with surveys of 6,000 regular customers, which the retailer will publish as a “manifesto” during the summer and share with political parties.

On the face of it, Iceland’s customer manifesto sounds like quite a good idea. Surveys in the UK and elsewhere regularly reveal that people do not trust politicians to take decisions that will improve their lives.

With Iceland’s support, customers are much more likely to get their views in front of politicians and possibly even acted on. As Iceland’s executive chairman Richard Walker said at the time of the announcement: “Customers have told me they have had enough of being told what they should care about and wanted their chance to be the voice of the high street. The Iceland Manifesto is their chance to do just that.”

The amplifying potential of Iceland is particularly strong given Walker himself is very active politically. He has been a vocal campaigner on social and environmental issues, and in 2022 he put himself forward to stand as a Conservative MP. More recently he has switched allegiances and now publicly backs Labour.

Such a politically engaged leader is more likely than most to bring customers’ opinions in front of politicians.

But the Iceland manifesto also raises some troubling questions about what the business is trying to achieve. While the involvement of companies in politics always raises hackles, Walker has long claimed that “Iceland is apolitical”.

Quite how he squares that claim with the company becoming a political platform for its customers needs some scrutiny. One explanation could be that Iceland sees itself as an impartial translator of its customers’ political preferences to politicians. After all, these are not the retailer’s opinions; they are simply those of its customers.

However, the idea that any company is going to be neutral in all this and have no role in deciding what issues are raised with its customers and prioritised in the manifesto is difficult to sustain.

It seems very unlikely that positions that are contrary to the interests of the company are going to be prioritised in the discussions with customers or in the final manifesto. Iceland is telling us this is the customer’s voice, but it is the company that will decide exactly what that voice should say and how it should say it.

Underlying problems

There are two major problems behind this. The first is the lack of any kind of external transparency in the process. Political participation, such as through lobbying, is typically regarded as more democratic when it is transparent.

However, Iceland has made no commitment to make any of the transcripts of its discussions with customers or politicians public, nor the surveys it will use to gauge opinions. We will just have to take the company’s word for the opinions it finds and the way they are communicated to politicians.

A second major problem concerns the methodology. Political polling and focus group approaches have well-established methodologies to ensure their accuracy and validity. Even so, official polling organisations often get things wrong.

Walker has been political in the past when he took a stance on infant formula pricing and promotion rules.

In the case of the Iceland manifesto, however, there is little indication of any attempt to use robust research approaches. Relying on a core group of just seven panel members is already something of a red flag, especially when no information has been provided on their representativeness of the broader population of Iceland customers.

And, if the initial reports of the first panel meeting are anything to go by, statements such as “100% claimed” and “83% said” are essentially meaningless from a statistical point of view given that they actually mean “seven out of seven claimed” and “six out of seven said”.

Quoting percentages from a sample of seven is simply bad practice and does not bode well for sound scientific research of political opinions.

So should we welcome the Iceland manifesto? Given these problems, the manifesto seems to be a case of great idea, poor execution. Finding new and better ways of listening to citizens is important for revitalising our democracy. In principle, there is no reason why a retailer shouldn’t play a role in this.

But retailers are private entities primarily with commercial goals, and their role in soliciting and reporting political opinions needs to be carefully designed to ensure it is legitimate. Why should you believe me? Because 100% of people who wrote this article agree.


An Iceland spokesman told The Conversation:

Iceland is committed to using its platform to champion the issues which our customers really care about. With monthly polls of up to 6,000 nationally representative customers and a series of regional focus groups, we’re committed to publishing the results in full and where our panellists share an anecdote, we’ll ensure they are happy their comments have been reported accurately. The final document will be shared with every political party without favour and in enough time for them to listen before compiling their own manifestos.

 

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

 

Posted in: Business and the labour market, Culture and policy, Democracy and voter preference, Food and agriculture, Political ideologies, Public services, UK politics

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