If Blair's Labour Party Was Pizza Express, This Is Why Corbyn's Needs to Be Wetherspoons
For now, Labour's right-wing seem intent on making the party the McDonald's of the British political system. Here's why they're wrong.
There is a theory, long-espoused by the political activist Tom Gann, that suggests Pizza Express is the archetypal Blairite restaurant. That, supposedly, the aesthetics and ideology of this semi-upmarket high-street pizza chain – the home of garlic dough balls, pizzas with holes in them and Jamie Cullum's Jazz Club – is reflected in the aesthetics and ideology of the "modernising" Labour right.
This is a theory that, to me, has always seemed deeply plausible. Perhaps that has something to do with my own personal history: the Pizza Express in my hometown opened around the same time Blair swept to power, and in my child's mind something about the two events was linked. I had bought completely the "things can only get better" message promised in what media I was exposed to, and this brave new world of minimum wage laws and rockstars in Downing Street really did seem mirrored in the crisp dough of the "American" pepperoni pizzas I would consume at my family's new favourite restaurant.
But this theory is not supposed to be validated solely by my own personal memory. Gann is, for instance, able to cite sources such as a story from last summer, which placed the Burnham and Kendall campaign teams in a branch of Pizza Express, drinking limoncellos as they strategised (however ineffectually) about how to deal with the Corbyn surge.
And in truth, there was always something quite "Pizza Expressive" about the Blairite political project in general. Pizza Express is a chain fast food restaurant, but it is clearly a nice place: it thus acts, in the British cultural imagination, as a remedy to the crappiness of other, rival chains. For roughly the same price as, say, Pizza Hut, Pizza Express will serve you fresh, non-greasy, nutritious-seeming food in a clean, pleasant environment, surrounded by a tasteful array of Italianate art that seems like it's been stolen from a two-star hotel somewhere in Tuscany. In doing so, Pizza Express makes a sort of middle-class pseudo-luxury available to all. This was precisely what Blairism always aimed at doing: what redistribution it attempted was all about exporting middle class aspirations and opportunities downwards (hence the focus on boosting university admission rates, etc.). In this way, Blairism aimed to offer people who would otherwise be merely existing in a crappy, provincial Britain something better.
Now, this Pizza Express theory is important, because it is my belief that it can explain why the Labour right today have lost control of the party – indeed, why they are in danger of slipping into political irrelevance altogether. Because nowadays – while it's common enough to think of the Labour right as continuing to be "Blairite" – the restaurant that Labour shares the most profound affinity with is clearly, at least since Corbyn first came to power, no longer Pizza Express. Rather, the favoured restaurant of the Labour right is McDonald's.
The prophet of this new Labour McDonaldsism is Wes Streeting, a former NUS President and, since May of 2015, the MP for Ilford North. McDonald's is clearly one of the institutions that has been most formative for Wes both personally and politically: as a sixth form student, he worked as a server in a branch of the chain, and he has a relatively long history of tweeting about his love for its food – whenever he needs a good cheering up, it seems, Wes is marching directly to McDonald's.
But the real depth of Wes' love for McDonald's only became truly apparent this April, when it was announced that Labour would not be allowing the company to host a stall at this year's party conference. The rationale for this was, of course, that McDonald's exhibits a number of deeply questionable employment practices, in particular that it doesn't afford its employees union recognition and doesn't pay them a living wage. But the idea that this could ever possibly be a good enough reason for a party – which ostensibly represents the interests of working people – to exclude a company from its annual conference was something Wes found baffling. "Virtue-signalling of the worst kind," he wrote in the New Statesman. "It smacks of a snobby attitude towards fast-food restaurants and people who work or eat at them," he told The Sun.
Although Wes' crusade was ultimately unsuccessful, he did manage to whip up a minor twitterstorm in which seemingly every right-wing Labour-type pundit was tripping over themselves to say how much they loved the chain (see, for instance, this gem from The Independent's John Rentoul). The general argument of the McDonaldsists proceeds from the fact that working-class people often happen to like McDonald's food, and therefore often choose to eat there. In banning McDonald's from the conference, Corbyn's lot are just showing themselves up as falafel-munching vegetarians (as Wes put it in his Sun interview) who can never understand the way the real people of Britain act and think. We're better than them, so give us some damn McDonald's already! I'll have the filet o'fish please! Just one? No, better make that 12!
This is revealing, because whereas – as I've said – Pizza Express stands in some small way opposed to the general crappiness of the Britain that lower-income people are forced to exist in, McDonald's is entirely a fixture of this crappiness. Now, I don't want to get into a whole Big Thing about whether it's OK to like McDonald's or not, but even if you do like it, surely you have to admit that McDonald's is, paradigmatically, crappy: that its restaurants are ugly and always too busy; that its food is bland, stodgy and unethically sourced; and that even the salads are incredibly, cartoonishly unhealthy for you to consume. Thus for me, the judgement that McDonald's is a bad place and that it is bad to eat there is not the result of snobbiness, but rather something formed from direct experience. That a company like McDonald's can thrive is, for me, a damning indictment of the order of things.
Which is why, I think, the McDonaldsism of the Labour right must be expressive of their real detachment from the badness of this order. If they had really experienced the crappiness of the world around them, even for a day, these people would not think they had to uncritically express a pro-attitude towards it in order to seem electorally credible. They would realise, in short, that there are all sorts of aspects to the world that working-class and lower-income people are forced to exist in that it would be worthwhile to abolish.
This real detachment is evident in much of the rest of the language and postures that these people adopt in their phoney attempts at demonstrating authenticity. Wes' falafel-munching comment from his Sun interview is a good example of this: in what world is falafel not a fairly common part of urban working-class people's diet? Another case-in-point would be Owen Smith's tirade against "frothy coffee" during the leadership election campaign: apparently Owen doesn't realise that a cappuccino is something available basically everywhere (including McDonald's) that is drunk by people of basically all backgrounds. In Owen Smith's head, do working-class people all own whippets and quaff pints of mild? It would perhaps be unsurprising if this really was what he thought, considering how little the anti-Corbyn faction of the party seems to have to offer working-class people – beyond, of course, the misguided affirmative stance built into their McDonaldsism.
Is the solution, then, to return to the golden era of Pizza Expressivism? Hardly. Pizza Express is fine, but it's no socialist utopia. Rather, what the Corbyn faction in particular should be attempting is to move the Labour party from its regressive McDonaldsist phase to a higher, Wetherspoons phase.
Why Spoons? Well, when you think about it, Wetherspoons is a manifestation of everything a Corbyn-led Labour party should aspire to be, if it wishes to win power. Though often maligned by the middle classes, Spoons offers lower-income people a wide range of good-quality foods and drinks, at affordable prices and in settings marked by an atmosphere that is typically at once welcoming and, when you want it to be, stand-offish. Any government modelling itself after Spoons would thus exist primarily to facilitate people getting what they want and need out of their work and life, without intruding upon it in an authoritarian manner. Hence, Spoonsism would seek to make the world feel more like a home than it otherwise would – exactly like the prospect of being able to duck into a Wetherspoons might do, whenever you're lost in an unfamiliar city centre. A Spoonsist government would also be committed to public art, inspired by the extraordinary variety of carpets that you can find across Wetherspoons. The one downside is that the chain is pretty iffy on Europe; although of course Corbyn himself hardly escapes that suspicion.
At any rate, "The world transformed into Spoons." That's a pretty compelling vision for Labour to set out to voters.
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