Wednesday, 03 July 2024 08:53

As Soon as this Pub Closes: Beer and the Election

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As Soon as this Pub Closes: Beer and the Election

Jeremy Corbyn is a lifelong abstainer from drink. Nevertheless, he has always shown interest in protecting pubs in his constituency, and so repaired with his campaign to the Bedford Tavern pub, in Seven Sisters Rd, North London, to watch Euro football games after canvassing. The pub was supporting his campaign.

Despite a welcome number of independent socialist and pro-Palestine candidates in the election, that is possibly the best story available related to beer and pubs. In the interests of balance, it should be noted that Liz Truss was the only candidate not to attend a 200-strong hustings in her constituency, because she was watching football in the pub.

Tsk tsk, CAMRA!

However, in the wider election campaign beer and pubs have featured in a big way.

Back in May, Rishi Sunak launched his campaign at the Vale of Glamorgan brewery in South Wales. As with much else in the Tory campaign, it was unclear what purpose this served. Sunak is not a drinker and South Wales is solidly Labour. Unfortunately in addition, and not for the first time, CAMRA allowed itself to be drawn into what was essentially a Sunak stunt. Engaging with politicians on beer and pubs is essential. Being part of their election campaign is not.

By contrast Keir Starmer is a beer drinker and referenced his local, the Good Beer Guide-listed Pineapple in Kentish Town during his own campaign. He also visited the nearby Three Locks microbrewery in Camden Town where he launched an initiative around help for small businesses which would certainly help small brewers.

Whether the policy will get past Rachel Reeves’s fiscal rules is another matter. It does however fit with CAMRA’s election platform. This called for a reduction in draught beer duty to help pubs compete with supermarket prices. The Tory Government made a very modest move in this direction. There is a call for a reduction in business rates for pubs, where they have a disproportionate impact on pubs business model.

The business rates policy was in both Labour and Tory manifestos. Labour also launched another policy (not in the manifesto) which would give local communities the right to buy pubs in their area which were shut and shuttered.

What about the workers?

This can all be seen as modestly positive, but as commentators noted it does nothing to address the very real issues of Global Big Beer and Giant PubCos. Indeed, Labour's business-friendly policies might well see them as allies, which for brewery workers, bar staff and drinkers they most certainly are not.

This leads to a focus on what were perhaps the key issues around beer and pubs in the campaign. Perhaps inevitably Nigel Farage and Brewdog featured. One of the Reform Party activists who Channel 4 have exposed as making racist, misogynistic and homophobic remarks has claimed that it was all just ‘chaps down the pub’ stuff. Not any pub I frequent, it isn’t!

Of course there is a history of the culture of middle and working-class Toryism. This culture focused on the pub, betting on sport, racism and sexism. It thrived when pubs consisted of mainly white men at the bar.

It was the kind of culture that the leaders of the first Labour Government in 1924, religious and often non drinkers deplored as something that would not help achieve social progress. They were right – but still needed the votes.

Times have changed. Pubs are struggling and most will only work if they are the hub of a local community attracting a wide cross-section of people, some of whom may not drink at all, but who come for sociable reasons, food or events.

Strangely this actually describes what many Wetherspoons are like, officially Nigel Farage’s favourite drinking spot. Tim Martin may be rather right-wing these days, but he has enough commercial sense to know that if pubs only appeal to the Clacton Reformers, they are on their way out.

In fact Martin made an election statement noting that he was not backing any party but had never been a Tory. Rather he was a Brexit supporter and aside from Boris Johnson and Farage he had also backed Labour Leave.

Brewdog’s descent continues

Tribune ran the story of an Asian worker at Brewdog Waterloo who was sacked after complaining about the presence of a large number of fans of the fascist Stephen Yaxley Lennon in the bar.

The occasion was Yaxley Lennon’s last outing into central London where he gathered far too many racists and fascists in Parliament Square.

On this occasion numbers of his fan club gathered in Brewdog Waterloo before heading to Parliament Square. Reports suggest that the police had informed Brewdog and asked them to stay open. This is quite usual for fascist gatherings. The police want them to be in one place where they can be watched.

What happened next however was not normal. A responsible employer would have informed staff due to work that day and suggested that any who would find it problematic could swap for another time. Brewdog, which refuses to recognise Unite Hospitality despite it having hundreds of members, did not act responsibly.

When an Asian worker complained and said they felt intimidated, the response of Brewdog was to proceed with discipline. Given there is no union, this is to put it mildly unlikely to have been a robust and fair process.

Brewdog is meant to be heading for an IPO-a public listing. How much more reputational damage can it sustain in its present format without some very significant change taking place?

Its AGM took place in Aberdeen on 29th June. Ahead of this, Unite raised a collective grievance on issues around workplace culture and pay to the new CEO, James Arrow. It was backed by Brewdog workers from 11 locations. Arrow has so far only responded with a general statement to all Brewdog employees.

Meanwhile in the world of global big beer, the battle for market share continues. Carlsberg Marstons has put in a bid for the soft drinks producer Britvic. So far it has been resisted. If Carlsberg are successful, it could raise their share of the UK market considerably, to 26%.

All this raises the key question of what is to be done. How about this:

1. An incoming Labour Government needs to be kept to its promises on help for small businesses and pubs, and lobbied on lower beer duty in pubs. It’s work that CAMRA and SIBA could do.

2. The impetus created by Unite on unionising bar workers needs to be supported and developed.

3. Independently owned and run pubs need the support of pubgoers, drinkers or not, and it is to be hoped that the incoming Government will stick to its word on this issue and help them to survive and thrive.

4. There needs to be a renewed focus on restraining the activities of global big beer on pub and brewery ownership. This might start to develop from action on points 1-3.

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Keith Flett

Keith Flett is convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research and has been a member of CAMRA since 1975.

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