Canvassing for Votes
Tuesday, 28 September 2021 18:24

Beer and the General Election

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett gives us a judiciously balanced, impartial and fair article on why beer drinkers should vote Labour on June 8th.

The days are long past, one hopes, when candidates on election days paid for free drink for those who voted for them - not least because the secret ballot prevents oversight of how people vote.

That said, beer and elections have a long history. In the 1750s the cartoonist Hogarth did a series of election related paintings, the Humours, which underlined the corruption present in pre-reform elections. Drink played a major part. Even after the 1832 Reform Act elections took place over several days, and bribes with beer were commonplace.

The major British brewers, known as the Beerage, have been traditionally supporters of the Tory Party. The Liberals, by contrast, became the party of temperance particularly after Gladstone’s 1872 Licensing Act, when Liberals with beer interests largely departed for the Tories. In some places the now Liberal Democrats remain a party who take a dim view of alcohol, even if mostly falling short of expressing temperance sentiments.

Of course in the modern world matters are not so simple. Very large UK brewers are often part of international groups, who have no central interest in supporting particular political parties in a specific country. One thinks of the world brewing giant ABInBev whose recent record takeover of the South African owned brewer SA Miller, itself a global concern, took place on the London Stock Exchange. To this extent the concept of a Beerage matters less than it did.

Secondly, donations to political parties have to be declared in accounts, and while a hefty donation to the Tory Party may look fine when the Tories are in office, it is less helpful on the occasions when they are not.

Even so a list of business people who urged people to vote Tory in the 2015 General Election still reveals numbers of the usual suspects. These included:

Rooney Anand, CEO, Greene King

Ralph Findlay, CEO, Marstons

Andy Harrison, CEO Whitbread

Jonathan Neame CEO, Shepherd Neame

Michael Turner, Chairman, Fullers

Whitbread no longer brew beer, but clearly old habits die hard! Individual support does not imply that the brewers themselves donate money to the Tories of course, and while this does occur, the amounts appear to be relatively limited in recent times.

The wider issue is the link between a conservative working class culture, drink, pubs and, quite often, a liking for sporting events and betting on them. It suggested in Victorian times a way of life where there was little time for the trade union or left-wing meeting or protest, and one which accepts that the status quo is a reasonably congenial place in which to dwell.

The arrival of trade union organisation and some control over the length of the working day has provided for the possibility of beer, sport and politics all being pursued and again the old divisions are less significant.

In the Victorian  period into the early twentieth century however, organised labour and much of the left were strong supporters of at least a degree of temperance. There were attempts to divorce cultural pursuits such as the theatre and music hall from drink, and efforts to control the drink trade and particularly pubs. There was a strong campaign for municipally owned pubs and indeed in 1916 a State owned brewery was set up in Carlisle, a centre of arms manufacture, with tied pubs to control how much workers drank.

Elections in the twenty first century are not however about bribing people with beer, or about just advancing the interests of Tory brewers, so what is the relationship between beer and how people people will vote on June 8th?

Labour have promised action on pubs and in particular closures, if they are elected. UKIP have criticised this but spending all day in the pub, as many of their supporters do, does not mean you know about the politics and ownership of them.

The numbers of small and micro-brewers continues to grow apace, helped by a tax advantage for those who produce relatively small amounts of beer. This change was actually brought in by Labour, giving an interesting modern twist to the relationship between political parties and brewing.

However most recently medium sized regional brewers, but also including some of the larger ‘craft’ brewers who are now above the limit for the tax reduction, have pressed for a rebalancing of tax so that they also have some advantage against the multi-national brewing giants like ABInBev.

Meanwhile the Campaign for Real Ale has also produced an Election Manifesto which it is pushing candidates to sign up to. It’s important because it means that in the context of an election there is campaigning input not just from brewers but those who drink beer as well.

One issue that is perhaps of particular interest in the current election is what the political profile is of craft beer drinkers? The Manchester brewer Cloudwater did a poll on this recently and the assumption tends to be that most of those who identify as craft drinkers are of a leftwards political inclination. Again this is very broad, so I’d only define that as ‘not Tory’.

My view is that most craft beer drinkers who take a public position are not likely to be Tories (and the same possibly for craft brewers). Yet anyone can order a drink at a bar and so craft beer drinkers must in fact include Tories. And, by the way, why not?

Surely one of the key things about beer, and drinking it, is that it is a sociable activity where people can discuss life, the universe and everything in a friendly way.

That of course is not the same as defending and improving the pub, the ability of brewers to brew good beer and sell it at sensible prices and indeed ensuring that the employment conditions of those who work in the licensed trade include things like the real Living Wage. When it comes to beer these are ‘what side are you on?’ questions.

What does all that add up to on June 8th 2017? Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t drink, perhaps just as well given his punishing schedule as leader. But he takes a keen interest in keeping community pubs open, very much in line with some socialist views going back to the late nineteenth century.

That aside your vote could go to the historic party of the Beerage, the Tories, the historic party of temperance, the LibDems, or to Labour which champions the interests of those who work in the industry and those who enjoy a beer on the drinking side of the bar too. 

So voting Labour makes sense for those who like beer, and let’s hope we can raise a glass of good beer to Jeremy Corbyn as PM in the early hours of June 9th.