Keith Flett sets out some proposals for progressive policies, and discusses how the Labour Manifesto begins the task of addressing a radical overhaul of brewing, pubs and beer
Labour has produced a radical Manifesto and it contains some important passages that will positively impact those who drink beer, those who use pubs, and people that work in the industry.
Jeremy Corbyn is not a drinker but he is well aware of some of the concerns around pub ownership and beer. I well remember being in a pub with him not long before he was elected leader. He was there because the pub was in his constituency and it was threatened with closure. We had a chat about the kind of craft beers I was drinking and what they were like. A lifelong hallmark of Corbyn has been a curiosity about what ordinary people do and what they get up to.
The process of writing the Labour 2019 Election Manifesto and what it contains of course went far wider than what Jeremy Corbyn thinks. It involved the whole Labour Party and anyone else interested in contributing ideas, too.
Perhaps the first point to make is that it does matter. In the last 30 years Parliament has passed legislation that has had a significant impact on beer and pubs. In 1989 the Beer Orders were passed. They addressed the dominance in the beer and pub industry of what were there then the ‘Big Six’ brewers, Whitbread, Courage etc. None of the Six still exist.
They were ordered to sell pubs so that their maximum holding was 2,000. That led to the rise of pub companies such as Punch. There was also a requirement for brewery tied houses to be able to sell a ‘guest’ real ale from another brewer. The Beer Orders were repealed in 2003.
In the meantime, Gordon Brown in 2002 when he was Chancellor introduced the Small Brewers Progressive Duty Relief. In summary it allowed smaller brewers to pay less tax and therefore stand a better chance of competing and surviving. It sparked the huge growth of breweries we’ve seen in recent years.
So what should we look for in the Labour Manifesto?
This goes wider than brewing but in the year we have seen Fullers sell to Asahi and Greene King to a Hong Kong Property Company there must be a requirement to refer such sales to Government to review their implications for jobs and pubs. Both brewers were part of the Beerage, that section of the industry that traditionally helps fund the Tory Party. Don’t expect Johnson to act though.
Pub Companies not breweries are now the major presence in pub ownership. Sometimes they employ managers but quite often they lease pubs to landlords as tenants. It is an uneven match and while the pub landlord isn’t always a natural ally of the left Labour needs to be on their side.
It goes much further than that reflecting the stranglehold such companies at least attempt to secure. Heineken, a global operation, runs a UK pub chain Star which has several thousand pubs. But it is also involved in providing and servicing cellar equipment in a lot more and without that no beer gets served.
A new version of the 1989 Beer Orders is now needed to address PubCos, while making sure that what is done doesn’t lead to fewer pubs.
Sales of Pubs
Most readers of this will be familiar with the reality of perfectly viable pubs being sold off for even more profitable housing. In England Asset of Community Value legislation allows a stay on sales while community bids to buy the pub are organised. Even so planning law needs to be strengthened so that when a change of use application for a pub is made it is automatically rejected unless it can be demonstrated that it is the only viable way forward. The Manifesto makes it clear that the Pub is the Hub and that all pubs will listed as ACVs to allow the community the first chance to buy them if they come up for sale.
Workplace Organisation in Breweries
Beer drinkers and perhaps particularly craft beer drinkers are often unpleasantly surprised when they learn of working conditions in the brewing and pub trades.
Big breweries are on the whole unionised by Unite and that extends in many cases to the larger regionals. Craft breweries are not unionised, although some do pay the living wage as does at least one pub chain- Brewdog. Another well-known pub chain, Wetherspoons, certainly does not and the Bakers Union (BAFWU) has been campaigning here.
Until quite recently craft breweries rarely employed enough people to make workplace organisation a priority. Now some do and unionisation campaigns are underway.
These of course meet exactly the same obstacles, around employment law, that exist elsewhere in industry. Legislation to strengthen workplace rights is a central part of the Manifesto.
Climate Emergency and the Green New Deal
Big Beer is global and beer drunk in the UK is not always brewed in the UK. That doesn’t mean that the occasional appearance of, for example, US craft beers that are not generally available here needs to be stopped. However shipping or air freighting large amounts of beer around the world is not environmentally friendly. There should be tax incentives to promote locally produced beer which is sold locally as a practical way of starting to address that. The Manifesto is very much on this page promising to use public procurement to strengthen local jobs and supply changes.
Attempting to control the global movement of capital can come later.
The Pub Environment
This is primarily about what those who like beer and pubs would want to see in a Labour Manifesto. But the labour movement, take the Labour leader himself, has not been and is not all about those who like a drink. Some don’t drink for cultural, religious, personal or medical reasons. Pubs should be welcoming to all as community hubs. That means that low/no alcohol beers (which thankfully in 2019 can be very drinkable)and non-alcoholic drinks should be readily available in pubs and this should be a licensing requirement.
This already exists in Scotland and will shortly be implemented in Wales. It is not primarily aimed at beer drinkers but rather those who imbibe high strength ‘white’ ciders and cheap spirits. Even so it should be UK wide not just to promote sensible drinking to prevent price undercutters too. And once all that is done we’ll be able to raise a glass to the many who will benefit as opposed to the few who won’t.
In the meantime the 2019 Manifesto shows that there is a willingness from Labour to listen to and act on the voices of those who want a beer industry and pubs that are not dominated by the interests of big business.
Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.