I have duly boycotted Tesco over ‘Pride Day’; but I have an uneasy feeling that its board are laughing all the way to the Tesco bank

Early this month, Francis Phillips, in her Catholic Herald blog, scored something of a bull’s eye, with a post in which she pointed out that Tesco had ended its support for a major cancer research event, but has instead made a large contribution to London’s main annual gay pride event. Her blog was picked up by the Daily Mail in a strong piece on the subject:

Outrage as Tesco backs gay festival… but drops support for cancer charity event

Tesco has triggered outrage by ending its support for the Cancer Research ‘Race for Life’ while deciding to sponsor Britain’s largest gay festival.

Some religious commentators and groups have condemned the decision and are calling for a boycott of the supermarket chain.

Tesco has worked with Cancer Research for more than ten years, raising hundreds of millions of pounds to help combat an illness that will affect one in three of the population…

The chain’s main contribution was support for the annual fundraising Race for Life, the UK’s largest women-only charity event, which has raised more than £400million for the fight against cancer since it began in 1994. But shortly after Tesco announced the partnership would end, the firm said it would be a headline sponsor of Pride London…

Francis Phillips, a commentator at The Catholic Herald, condemned the shift, saying: “Tesco is a supermarket.

“Its remit has been to sell good-quality food and other items at very reasonable prices, and in this it has been hugely successful.

“Why has it now aligned itself with an aggressive political organisation such as Pride London? Why has it given up its sponsorship of Cancer Research? Or at least…why hasn’t it taken up with another mainstream charity such as the British Legion or Age UK?

“….They are a fundamental part of the fabric of our society – the kind of fabric that Tesco should be reflecting.”

Well, no doubt like many who read Francis’s blog, I decided that I would respond to it, in my case by reluctantly removing my custom from Tesco (reluctantly because their online delivery service really is quite excellent, and I got used to it, and pally with the delivery men and so on). This morning, in fact, my first delivery from Sainsbury’s will be arriving. What puzzled me about this story was the simple question of why Tesco’s was doing this? It seemed like such an obvious own goal. The sums involved, for instance, are quite disproportionate. In fact, if you go to Tesco’s website, then click on “corporate responsibility”, you will see that actually, though they have ended their sponsorship of the Race for Life event after ten years, they still give a very large amount every year to charitable causes, far more than they are giving to the London Pride day:

Corporate giving Each year, we set ourselves a target to donate at least 1% of our pre-tax profits to charities and good causes. This year we donated £64.3 million to charities and good causes through direct donations, cause-related marketing, gifts in kind, staff time and management costs. This represents 1.8% of our pre-tax profits – almost double our target. Emergency relief and humanitarian aid We work hard to respond quickly to natural disasters wherever they happen. Our partnership with the Red Cross has helped us to get funds to those in acute need. This year, our emergency giving included donations to help the victims of floods in Central Europe and the Qinghai earthquake in China, as well as floods in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Now, what’s interesting about all this is the way Tesco’s have handled this latest furore. In fact, they didn’t (as you might think from the Mail), just switch from normal charitable giving to support for Gay Pride. They’ve ended their “headline support” support for a particular fund-raising event, the “Run for Life” and around the same time announced their support for the Pride day. But there’s been no actual switch from one to the other. It just looks like that. So why don’t they say so more convincingly?

They seem to have a ready defence: that their charitable giving has not been actually diminished at all. They could even have protested, in the face of Catholic attacks, that they are still major donors to a major third world charity founded by Catholics, Mary’s Meals (yes, it’s that Mary), which feeds about half a million third world children a day: as they point out on their website, Tesco “began supporting Mary’s Meals, an international charity providing meals for schoolchildren, through the Tesco Charity Trust in 2009. Tesco’s support provides meals for over 4,000 schoolchildren in India, Kenya, Malawi and Thailand every year.”

So. There’s the question: why don’t they defend themselves, as they so easily could? Francis Philips’s question remains unanswered: “Tesco is a supermarket; its remit has been to sell good-quality food and other items at very reasonable prices, and in this it has been hugely successful. Why has it now aligned itself with an aggressive political organisation such as Pride London?”

Well, there’s a simple answer to that. They are absolutely delighted by this furore. They want to be thought aggressively pro-gay, if necessary at the expense of their well-deserved reputation for chaitable giving. Firstly because there’s money in it: the pink pound is now a substantial economic factor in these things, just as in London the pink vote has to be courted by politicians seeking election; you can be quite sure that Mayor Boris will be present and marching on London’s Pride day, as he was last year. I suspect he grits his teeth while he’s doing it, but he will be there all the same.

But another factor, quite simply, is that the gay and proud of it movement is well established within Tesco’s itself, in a way which isn’t true of other supermarket chains, so far as I can see (though I am open to correction). Have a look at this, the website of “Out at Tesco: supporting our Lesbian, Gay and Transgender staff”.

This is supported, we learn, by two very senior Tesco executives, Andrew Higginson, Chief Executive of Retailing Services, Chairman of Tesco Bank and a non-executive Director of BskyB, a very big cheese indeed. And here’s another: Benny Higgins, Chief Executive Officer of Tesco Bank, who, we are told, was chief executive of retail banking at RBS between 1997 and 2005, where he led the integration of NatWest retail. Both these are members of the main board of Tesco. So that question of Francis’s may have its answer: Why, she asks, has Tesco’s now aligned itself “with an aggressive political organisation such as Pride London”? Answers, as they used to say, on one side of a postcard.

The fact is that annoying the Catholics is a very clever thing to do, if getting the support of the gay lobby is what you want. I bet you anything that Tesco’s are delighted at the furore this comparatively inexpensive gesture has stirred up, and that they will do nothing to calm it down. So where does that leave US? Do we simply ignore their almost certainly deliberately provocative act: or do we boycott them, as I have so far done, almost certainly to very little effect? Either way, I have an uneasy feeling that there are those within Tesco’s who are presently laughing all the way to the Tesco bank.