UK anger over executive pay saps support for capitalism, says think tank

The pay level of senior executives is the top concern British adults have about businesses in the UK, fuelling broader opposition to capitalism, according to a think tank. 

In a survey for Global Future, overly generous executive packages emerged as the biggest worry for 39 per cent of respondents, ahead of the 21 per cent who picked companies’ treatment of workers as their main concern and the 17 per cent who singled out the quality of service for customers.

The result is supported by another finding: almost half of respondents said businesses are doing a bad job on executive pay, while only a fifth thought the opposite. 

Anger at overpaid bosses is not unique to Britain. Surveys in the US, where chief executives earn on average 312 times more than their workers, have come to similar conclusions. Pay at the top has soared over the decades – in 1989 US chief executives earned 58 times more and in 1965 only 20 times more.

“There is no avoiding the fact that business is increasingly unpopular, and that the public is calling capitalism itself into question,” Global Future said.

“Capitalism is at risk from a new generation of populists seeking to harness public anger at the way the system works.”

Will Brett, director of research and campaigns at the think tank, called on companies to tackle the issues “undermining faith in capitalism”, such as pay disparity, tax avoidance and corporations’ impact on the environment. 

“If they don’t, the populists will do it for them – and it won’t be pretty,” he warned. 

Nearly a third of people polled for Global Future said businesses are doing a bad job on paying the right amount of tax, while a fifth disagreed. Opinion was more evenly split on companies’ care for the environment.

Overall, the survey revealed a strong preoccupation with ethics. Almost 80 per cent of respondents wanted the government to ensure businesses behave ethically, whether through regular law changes or action against companies that behave unethically even if they do not break the law.  

An earlier survey in the US pointed to a similar trend. Between 1993 and 2017, there was a sharp increase in the proportion of Americans who said they would consider switching brands to one associated with a good cause if price and quality were equal – from 66 per cent to 89 per cent.

Global Future was founded in 2017 and its advisory board includes Mike Coupe, the chief executive of the Sainsbury’s group, and Jonathan Portes who previously headed the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.


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