The Final Cut: politics, plans and power to the people

Cod Almighty | Article

by Tony Butcher

19 June 2024

Should we shout, should we scream? Whatever happened to the post-war dream?

What's the point of life, business and the universe? Join Chipper Stockwood for a symposium on how to save football and the world in forty five minutes.

Whatever makes you happy, whatever gives you hope.

TB: You're a serial, successful entrepreneur with social democratic principles – some may say very Croslandian. You have a profile and you're happy to use the platform available. So do you have a greater vision, even beyond Town, or Grimsby?
JS: I think I've mentioned elsewhere that when Brexit happened I was so bewildered by both my lack of comprehension that it was a possibility and the fact that it had happened. I decided to go and try and understand that. I went back to university, reading and thinking about it for a long time and when I thought I understood the diagnosis I had a juncture that there were a couple of paths I could take. I really enjoyed the process of reading and writing and studying and reading professors. The entrepreneurial urges in me felt that I had to go and build something again.

I was approached about frontline politics and I seriously considered it. I spent the best part of six months doing diligence into what the role of a candidate and an MP might be. I haven't spoken publicly about this, but it probably won't surprise you that I was actually approached by both main parties, which is interesting around the hard centre of politics. I don't think there's a lot between them, you can argue about some of the individual issues but actually centrist politics look at the way the world needs to be more moderate and economically focused but with a social conscience. Certainly, if I ever wanted to do it, it would always be as a Labour candidate. I was always pretty clear, though I had some interesting conversations.

My academic thesis was that capitalism worked and society functioned when we had strong community bonds because they were tended by civic institutions – this is the work of the philosopher Robert Putnam and more recently the morality work of the philosopher Jonathan Haines. The things that used to bind our generation, whether that was sports groups, unions, churches, well there was a social covenant that was a brake to the rich accelerating away to tax havens and leaving the rest of us behind.

It felt like there was a moral quotient that we were all part of a community together and it feels like that has been eroded through our institutions. The idea was "can we rebuild the institutions again?"

TB: You say eroded - is that the institutions themselves, or that the institutions have been captured?
JS: Ooh, that's a great question. It's probably a combination of both. If you look at certain institutions, like the demise of traditional organised religion, it has been well analysed. It used to be a way of bringing us together. In terms of the economic world it has certainly been captured by profit taking and the shareholder primacy argument. This goes deeply back into the 60s, Milton Freidman, the idea that businesses only have one motive, that is profit. Then Thatcher and Reagan. It has got a lineage back even further, but it really got hold through Thatcher and Reagan. And we, the world, had kind of believed that ideologically as the only model.

We forget that if we go a couple of hundred years back to the origins of capitalism post the mercantilist tradition, businesses were rooted in communities and had a social impact – creating jobs, creating communities. We've got to this distorted version of capitalism which is where the best version is you make a lot of money and do something philanthropic. The worst version, which is most of it, people make a load of money for themselves or for their shareholders, and try and pay as little tax as possible. They see that as a burden as opposed to your contribution to society. And then they fuck off to Monaco. It staggers me that we've disconnected business from society.

TB: Isn't it ultimately about purpose, what is the purpose?
JS: Yeah. I have historically talked a lot about tech but we seem to forget what it is in service of, what is its purpose exactly. Wealth creation in itself makes no sense to me, what is it in service of, personal wealth creation or a better society?

I don't mind personal aspiration, I've benefitted from that, but if it's just about cars and houses and entitling your kids then I think it shows a lack of morality and imagination. And the dirty secret is that it is unfulfilling. Some of the most miserable people I know, some super-wealthy friends, and they are not happy as they haven't got a sense of purpose. They've made ridiculous amounts of money, but they don't know why they are doing it. So they end up getting younger wives, bigger cars and all the stuff that won't make them happy. It's just stuff.

TB: It comes down to purpose, what's the point of everything. What's the point of what you are doing at Town? What's the point of capitalism, what's the point of society, what's the point of doing something? Is it for you as an individual or as part of, and for, a collective?
JS: I can't work out whether I'm a reluctant socialist or a reluctant capitalist, probably somewhere between the two. I have a foot in both worlds. I enjoy building businesses but the making money part of it – I'm super-commercial in everything I do – but it was never about that. If you do good work and you build great companies, products, services and cultures then making money is the easy bit. If you do something with an aspiration of excellence that's kind of my cultural reasoning for the football club. If we do something excellent, success will follow; I think it is a natural consequence. Whereas if you try just to aim for 'success' you are inverting it. You build cultures, and having purpose and success is a by-product of those things rather than "I want a massive house, a Lamborghini or a 30-year old wife."

TB: Doesn't that come down to your personal view of the purpose of your life – is it centred upon yourself and your immediate desires, or is it that you are part of society? That comes down to when you interact with people on a commercial level: are you there simply to get the maximum for yourself or do you recognise that it is a two-way operation and that there's a concept of fairness involved?
JS: You can imagine all these management tests I've done over the years. The one thing that comes out is that fairness matters to me. I like a deal, I like doing deals, I like negotiating, but it needs to feel fair and that the relationship is intact. Again the dirty secret is - and it is the same in building cultures that people want to work in – they are more productive, they are more value creative over the long term. I didn't know this when I started out, but for me winning in deals doesn't mean that someone has to be defeated badly. It means winning with honour as well.

I don't know where that comes from, whether it's a 'Grimsby thing', but there's a personal thing in there. Maybe it's the philosophy and reading over the years, but what we know about psychology, especially over the last 30 years, we really know the things that matter, that make us happy. It's not the money – once your basic needs are met, you can increase your happiness on the margins by having more money – but the real things that matter are the quality of your relationship, having a purpose beyond your day to day, feeling connected to people in a way that is an expression of love and being part of your community. A sense that you are learning and giving something back.

We know these things, these things show up in history again and again. We know what makes us happy and yet we've bought into this lie about consumerism and self-fulfilment as the one goal, that, as Thatcher said, there's no such thing as society. It is just untrue. On a personal level the thing about the Grimsby Project of the last three years is that, for all the stuff that might sound a little grandiose, it's about trying to rebuild the institution, trying to be active and useful as a catalyst because I have got network, resources and energy that I could put to use. On a human level I'm falling back in love with the town, reconnecting my relationships with my family. I spent more time with my mum in the last two years of her life than I had in the last 30 years. I'm spending more time with my mates from school.

What we all know to be true intrinsically is what really matters is our relationships. I've got that back through this project in a way that has built my soul. It's interesting that we know these things but we try to look away from them. It is also absolutely acknowledging that there are economic imperatives that need to be met for people – I, we, have got our privilege. At the same time there's a lot to be said for focusing on relationships, connection, learning and ideas.

TB: Harking back to the first part of our discussion - we talked about stability. What you've just been describing about money – really all money can do is provide some stability for people. I've always thought that the problem for Grimsby and Cleethorpes is that they've been relatively a low wage economy. It exports people. It doesn't provide that stability anymore since the collapse of the major industries from the late 70s onwards. Ultimately what you said about Brexit and the collapse of the town – and all of Britain now – is that removal of stability, and then the removal of the ability to have stability.
JS I love that idea, there's definitely something in that. When you and I were growing up without thinking about it, but sub-consciously, a sense that if you worked hard there were jobs out there, decent work, there was a chance of getting on the property ladder, maybe even save for a pension. It feels like the covenant has been broken.

TB: There's also another aspect in Grimsby and other similar places, not necessarily you get on the property ladder but that you have a stable place to live.
JS: Yes, that sense that the world made sense, that there was a covenant: if you do your part of the bargain the world, the economy, society, will deliver for you. That's all been eroded by this distorted version of capitalism.

TB: The covenant aspect is about institutions not delivering.
JS: Yeah, absolutely. Who is the covenant with anymore? You layer into that – this is the John Alexander thing – we've started as a society to believe the covenant is broken, in both directions. The idea of citizenship – we help ourselves and each other. There are people who see government as a service provider and that they are customers, but what we need is to rebuild the institutions and to make a demand of us, as citizens, to step into that. If the covenant of 'you do your bit and life gives you the opportunity to graft for' has gone away, then people have gone "Oh fuck it, what's the point?"

That idea of stability you suggested is just not there anymore – unless you have the embedded privilege of having parents that give you a leg up or connections. We've got to find a way of reestablishing that covenant.

TB: The same words keep coming around. I work in the civil service and I can see from the inside that in parts of the civil service the purpose is changing. You were supposed to do something on behalf of the public to support and service them, but now organisations are instructed to break even. Your purpose is to deliver the outcome set by targets and do it cheaply. That changes the way an organisation considers its purpose – not service but self-serving. That's a withering away of the purpose of the institution. An organisation has been captured by a different mindset, or ideology.
JS: That's fascinating and that's why I’m encouraged by this idea of missions. What you've described there is an outcome of strategy rather than a strategy or purpose itself. Break-even is not a strategy, that's an outcome, though measurable. That mechanisation, it's taking over again, this Tayloristic model of creating efficient machines. All you're doing in your work and I'm doing in mine is we're trying to create purpose in how we create a better life, not just for ourselves. We've lost track of that in this mechanised view of the world to be optimised towards efficiency. We should be talking about flourishing and driving and how do we get some of that language back in to what it is to be human. It's the mission creep of the language of business.

TB: Going back to Town and how you talk about data. From the perspective of us on the other side that sounds like what I've just described – management speak and gathering management information. But it's all about purpose.
JS:I know I have done a poor job over the last few year explaining what data means. I feel I sit in the middle of so many things – I'm super-extroverted in some situations and introverted in others. Sometimes I need quiet and solitude, others I need to wave my hands about. I feel my business career has been typified by over-indexing on the need for data and information to try and help me make good decisions, and then I'm all instinct and risk taking as well. Then there's all the culture and warm intangible stuff.

I feel people have heard me talk about data and that has become a bit of a red herring because it is just one, small component. If I'd come in on day one and talked about what I really believe in is setting a high bar on expectations and culture, I set that as my ambition and I want people to meet that. But that is so abstract…

TB: So today Grimsby, tomorrow the world, but not through politics?
JS: I think I can be more useful and more effective without a boss. Ultimately I want to be part of the communities I work in. Our Future is the vehicle for me to do something in Grimsby but also use that as replicable up and down the UK so I can be helpful in what I see as some of the challenges to communities. I was tempted by it but I also don't think politics needs another white, bald-headed, middle-aged man.

TB: That leads us on to not necessarily being a politician, being in the position of influence and using it. Now, with the expected change of government – it may not change party but there will be a new government – they always love to do taskforces, working groups, commissions, etc. That's going to mean they seek specialists to have a forum to decide how we fix something. Is that an area you're open to?
JS: I've declared that I am going to be helpful to Labour getting elected. I've being doing that for a couple of years, I have tried not to conflate my personal interests and politics with the football club. We had a prime ministerial visit that was cancelled three hours before he was supposed to come but Lucy Frazer came instead. We're very open to all political persuasions and I feel that's right.

But it is politics, football is politics. I now feel slightly more liberated. I'm going to try and get Labour elected, I've been doing it quietly and I'll continue that and then we'll see where that goes. I'm not grabbing for any position. What it shows is that it ebbs and flows, but if there is some way I can be helpful in service of what the country needs I am happy to do that and I am committed to doing that. I am trying to be useful in getting a change of government and we'll see where that goes.

TB: B Corp – where's this leading? Are you looking at changing the current corporate law structure - what British capitalism is – away from the short term rentier economy and shareholder primacy? How do you safeguard the football club's interests beyond your tenure where owners can do what they like with companies they own? Community Interest Company? Is that something of interest to you, both Town and generally, within the scope of what capitalism and could or should be?
JS: They are the same part of the Venn diagram. The ultimate aim is changing both the culture and the law. One without the other doesn't make sense. Section 172 of the Companies Act – I looked at this a number of years ago – to make the purpose of the business beyond shareholders, so it's sort of in there anyway.

TB: Gordon Brown brought that in and it has no impact as it doesn't remove shareholder primacy, it inserts some advisable considerations below that, sort of the difference between 'must' and 'can'.
JS: There's something called the Better Business Act that I've been behind the scenes on, which is a whole campaign trying to change the law. It won't work unless you also change the culture of business, which gets back to the earlier question about "what's the point and purpose of running a business". For me that's a longer term conversation. This comes back to politics, this is why I think having a government that declares it will protect workers' rights is important. It's part of the conversation about the idea that capital just seeking higher and higher returns irrespective of what that does to workers, and workers' rights and the egregious nature of things like zero-hour contracts. That comes back to your point about stability. For me all of those things, be it B Corp or Community Interests is about remembering that shareholders are only one constituent of what businesses should have regard for.

Business is, I think, a massive vehicle for social change, for social mobility, for wealth creation, it is one of the big tools we can use alongside policy and politics. With regard to the football club, enshrining our articles and our culture within the constraints of the B Corp accreditation means that if someone comes in afterwards and unpicks that, as a minimum it will start a conversation with fans to ask "Why don't you think about the community, why don't you think about the environment?" That’s going to be an interesting conversation. Actually one of the questions in due diligence for a new owner from, I imagine, a Trust member or representatives of the fans would be "Will you uphold our B Corp principles?"

We're setting some things in train that aren't onerous or administratively heavy to the club but are doing, frankly, the right thing in a business. If you want to run without a clear profit motive these things are actually more important.

TB: Well, yes, that's the thing about the Community Interest Company – they are specifically NOT for profit and there is an asset lock in it. They could be a way of protecting the football heritage which was part of the Football Governance Bill. Potentially a CIC could be the owner of the ground and heritage/legacy rather than the operating club company, which would be a separate entity. That's a way of separating the two and protecting them from an errant or malign owner. I recognise there are other issues such as the EFL requirements – they don't permit mutuals.
JS: We looked at this 18 months ago because it's a good idea, your instincts are right. Forget about the complicated issues of what assets are in or out, it actually means that as you have a certain equity value if you suddenly change that and take away a large part of the asset base into something that is locked then you have to have an owner who is prepared to forego that equity. If you are looking to grow, the only way you can do that at the moment is through further equity injections. If there is no way of releasing that equity back over time no-one is going to invest in it.

TB: It changes the terms of the business, doesn't it. What that would mean is the cost base would have to meet the income more closely – players would get paid less.
JS: My rather naïve, original idea was: why don't we just get into good shape, write our equity off and just give it to the fans? Actually it doesn't work and it is not sustainable if you want to be competitive. If you want to play National League North and you are happy with that, we could probably do that but, guess what, none of the fans are going to be happy. If we could guarantee three or four thousand fans and we're playing in the National League for the next 20 years with the odd cup run, but fans want us to be ambitious. The commercials just don't work.

Secondly there's a whole question of what governance do you have to professionalise and maintain a strong culture in a club if it is not owned by individuals who can at least influence the culture. It might be possible but the economics don't work at the moment. You need someone who will write a cheque or raise money. If we could do a poll and ask whether Town fans would be happy in the National League for the next 20 years with the occasional bit of football fortune…

TB: That's only the case if nobody else goes down that route, but if everyone has to then there is a level playing field – there is stability in the market. That's where the football governance comes in. The (watered down) bill did not go through wash up. That's a further delay to the Premier League paying the money to EFL clubs.
JS: The bill is watered down, but I'm a big believer in get something out there and working on it. I think we've got such an opportunity, even though Fair Game campaigned to say we need the amendments. But, you know what, let's just get it live. All the people I've spoken to about it care enough about the fundamental principles of fan-led reviews to make it workable. But you're right, if we can make the economics work you solve all kinds of problems. If you put a cap on salaries, if you put a cap on the equity cheques people can write you just change the culture and change the ownership type. You don't need benevolent dictators…or just dictators writing cheques every year. That would be brilliant if we could do that, but there are a few twists and turns until then.

TB: I was going to ask about fan ownership but that would end with me saying don't even go down that route – I think that's a terrible idea in practice because the masses can be manipulated – as we have seen in many Supporters Trusts. It's about protecting an institution.
JS: Yeah completely, I think B Corp does it. It's also the right thing to do. We are going to have to improve massively to get accreditation - I am still hopeful we will – it gives us a framework on where we need to improve, including the management structure as well. That's ended up being management speak rather than normal speak.

TB: That gets us back to Data Data Data! What is data, it's just something that helps us decide where we want to go – it helps us on the journey – rather than saying we want it because we want a plaque on the wall. We're back to that word purpose again. A lot of us have been in organisations that have gone down that route of getting a plaque on the wall – Investors in People! Yeah, and? Some boxes have been ticked.
JS: Then people think about their higher purpose and kindness and then compassion and connection second, then we'll have the weekend off.

I feel very contented but I am also very grateful for the life I've got. I designed it in a certain way. I've tried to be deliberate about it but it is not lost on me that 7-year old kid in Scaffa. We were skint, I was cold a lot, I think about him quite a lot. The journey I've gone on and the distance I have travelled. I have a lot of gratitude – I will probably ask you to leave this out – as it is hard to articulate without sounding like a wanker, but I feel a moral obligation to do something useful with all this privilege and luck and good fortune that I've had. It motivates me to participate and be part of something bigger. That's what the Grimsby stuff is in itself, because life's been good to me even though I've worked quite hard, that feels like quite a moral motivation to put that to good use.

TB: You don't want to pull the drawbridge up
JS. This is from reading a lot. I realised at least half the success I've had isn't mine. There's a great book on the myth of meritocracy, Blair…and Thatcher with the notion 'if you work hard you'll get on'. It's just not true, and it's never been true. Michael Young wrote the book in the 1950s and it was satire.

TB: And look how his son turned out.
JS: Exactly! Exactly! And once you understand that, well, I've definitely grafted, that's my work ethic and that's a Grimsby thing. You couldn't get in the office earlier than me or go home later when I was at the peak of my entrepreneurial career. But that's not enough. There are people around the world working harder than me. You need luck, and you need a receptiveness to luck, accept it and take risks. It's not completely serendipity – I know I have made opportunities – but I also know that, say, the internet, I was around at a certain age and got involved with that. A bunch of the businesses I was involved with weren't my idea. The fact we've got a better education system, a great tax system, that fact that we have a National Health Service, all these things are what I built my success on and are nothing to do with me and we take them for granted.

Changing the language of tax, is needed. I was talking to someone this morning and they wanted me to join their board. He was talking about raising money for the business and his partner has gone non-dom. And I'm like, where is that a good idea? You've spent all your life using this country to make money and then you fuck off to Monaco the first time you make millions. I find people are framing it the wrong way: you pay a lot of tax because you've made a load of money. That's why you pay tax, it's not a bad thing. We seem to have the culture which is optimising with this lazy argument about bureaucracy and waste and inefficiency in government. I struggle with that.

I feel, somehow, compelled, and it's not religious, it's not legacy, I genuinely don't care about the other stuff – I've fucking got all this energy, just use it for something purposeful.