(Bloomberg) -- John Roberts is the founder and chief executive officer of AO World, the online electrical goods retailer. AO World is listed on the London Stock Exchange and made sales of £1.2 billion ($1.5 billion) in the year through March 2023.

Roberts, 50, spoke with Bloomberg News as part of a series of interviews with CEOs ahead of the UK’s general election, in which business leaders diagnose the country’s problems and propose solutions.

Q: What’s your message to the UK’s politicians?

A: Stop treating the electorate like they’re stupid, because they’re not. And to be honest. We’ve got an absolute mountain of debt and if we didn’t have that then the country would be in a much better place. To just keep borrowing as much as you possibly can is not responsible for any kind of household and just not responsible for any kind of government. 

We’re in an election year, so what are they going to do? They’re just going to spray around a load of unaffordable tax cuts to try to win votes because politicians are in the business of power and the currency is votes. All roads and all decisions lead to that, rather than what’s best for the country in the long term, and for the citizens they serve.

Q: What could be done to inject life back into the UK stock market? 

A: Is the UK stock market thriving? No, of course it’s not. Every metric that you look at says that. Are we doing anything to help that as a nation? No. We give people loads of tax breaks on ISAs. Why don’t we mandate that 20% of ISAs need to be invested in UK stocks? Overnight, that would create a bounce in the whole stock market and people would feel wealthier, and it would cost the country absolutely nothing. 

Q: We’ve seen your rival Currys become a target of Elliott Investment Management. Do you feel like a potential target?

A: I don’t have any intention of going anywhere, and our investors understand what we are doing as a business. If I look at Alex [Baldock] at Currys, look how distracted he is now trying to deal with that. But look how the UK stock market valued that business. Now Alex is at 70p a share, and he was 47p a share, and if it all falls through, what happens then? Why is he suddenly worth that when the results of the business are no different?

UK stocks generally are materially undervalued. I get asked regularly why I’m stupid enough not to do a take-private of our business at the valuations that it’s at. That’s not my ambition, that the reason I’m taking it private is so I can make even more money that I don’t need. 

Being listed has not been a bad thing for our business and genuinely it isn’t the pain that everyone thinks it is. If you’ve got a private equity owner, I bet they’re a lot more demanding than Legal & General.

Q: How optimistic or negative are you feeling about the UK consumer and the economy?

A: The consumer spending squeeze is going to get worse. We’ve also got dark clouds on the horizon in terms of the macro picture, about which pensioner is going to get voted into the US. Then obviously you’ve got the Middle East and then the impact that has on the supply chain. It takes two weeks longer to go the long-way round. All it does is add costs. Any product that comes from the Far East, we’ve increased our stock-holding by between two and three weeks. 

People will just be more discerning on who they trust, so you just have to work harder to serve customers better. Brilliant retailers will continue to do well and for the middle ground and the poor retailers, a good recession clears those businesses out. 

Q: What do you think will happen to British retail?

A: We don’t see any great price inflation. If anything I would expect a little bit of price deflation.

Currys has won the bricks-and-mortar retail battle, and then we’ve got businesses like John Lewis that we still compete with. I view them as just a ship looking for some rocks. It’s really sad what’s happening with John Lewis, and I feel socially and for the fabric of society for their partners. 

John Lewis hasn’t evolved in the way that they should. That’s what happens in retail when you take your eye off the ball or start off thinking about other things. What experience have they got in building property? Leave that to Redrow and Barratt. 

Q: If you had one policy you’d like to see changed, what would it be?

A: The apprenticeship levy was genuinely a beacon of hope. But it’s just inflexible. There has to be a period of time when the apprentice works outside the business. It’s absolute madness. And if you don’t tick that box, you don’t qualify. My recommendation to the government would be to go to people like James Timpson and Tesco and AO World, really good employers, and say, “All right, what do we need to do to make this an incredible success?” £2 billion of apprenticeship levy has been returned to the government, so on any metric, it’s an outstanding failure and burden on businesses that is not delivering for youth.

Politicians are very good at talking and absolutely horrific at doing anything. They should devolve responsibility to people that have a proven track record.

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