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What an Argument About McDonald's Tells Us About the State of the Labour Party

Corbyn haters were happy to kick up a fuss without getting their facts straight.

by Conrad Landin
19 April 2016, 2:09pm

(Photo by Flickr user js42 via)

He's gone and done it again. Jeremy Corbyn's decision to ban McDonald's from an exhibition stand at the Labour Party conference "smacks of a snobby attitude towards fast-food restaurants and people who work or eat at them", according to Labour MP Wes Streeting. "McDonald's may not be the trendy falafel bar that some people in politics like to hang out at, but it's enjoyed by families across the country," Streeting told the Sun on Sunday.

Streeting's fellow Labour MP, Ian Austin, asked on Twitter: "Why has @UKLabour turned down £30k from McDonald's?" Even a top official from trade union Community waded in, saying the fast-food giant "strives to be a good employer".

This was surely Corbyn's biggest blunder since he cancelled Christmas last December. And all for the sake of his own vegetarianism. Barring an exhibitor is fine "if you've got a principled decision", said Labour peer Baroness Prosser. "But what is the principled decision against McDonalds? I don't get it."

It turns out that Corbyn had no involvement in the decision. He doesn't even sit on the tiny business board of Labour's national executive that made it. According to Labour, the firm was penalised because of its poor record on trade unions and workers' rights, not because of its attitude towards chickpeas. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union have long sought access to franchised restaurants to wipe out a zero-hours culture and get secure contracts for staff. It's pretty baffling that Baroness Prosser, herself a former senior trade union official, didn't seem to be aware of this. They've also been encouraging their members to join Labour, as part of a wider strategy from the unions. Labour changed its rules in 2012 to set the objective of getting more working class people to stand for Parliament in stone.

It apparently didn't occur to Streeting that the Sun on Sunday might not have Labour's best interests at heart in taking up the cause of beleaguered Big Mac munchers. Shit-storms over the most trivial and far-fetched issues have quickly become the order of the day in Corbyn's Britain – and an "exasperated" MP is the reporter's best friend.

Faux outrage is a selective art. Take Kevan Jones, the shadow defence minister who rightly took offence when Ken Livingstone said he needed "psychiatric treatment", but was happy to suggest opponents of programme motions (part of parliamentary procedure) "should be taken out to the nearest lunatic asylum" in 2010. And when it comes to bans from the Labour Party conference, it's hard to remember anyone getting annoyed when building giant Carillion was kicked out in 2013 over its complicity in a blacklist of trade unions. However, of course, the leader at the time was not Jeremy Corbyn.

But there is something else at play in McFlurrygate. Streeting and his supporters, such as Independent columnist John Rentoul, speak of McDonald's as if it's a national institution. And perhaps it is. But their apparent outrage at Labour daring to insult the chain smacked of the time Tory minister Grant Shapps tried to get "hardworking people" on side through the offer of "beer and bingo". Class politics has undoubtedly returned to the Labour Party, but there's clearly a long way to go when MPs see potential voters primarily as consumers expressing a preference for a particular type of burger, rather than workers who deserve rights and a living wage.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. A trade unionist I spoke to on Monday blasted McDonald's for "creating the McJob" – but Labour MP Clive Betts once put down a motion in Parliament condemning the term as "derogatory". It soon emerged McDonald's had paid for his trip to see the World Cup in Germany.

To give Streeting his due, he ditched his snobbery critique after he was repeatedly confronted with the issue of workers rights. He instead focused on the loss of income for Labour, and said the move smacked of "virtue signalling" – the latest term to erupt out of the world of cod academia. It means making worthy gestures without any effort or sacrifice. Like banning McDonalds from the Labour Party conference – which won't actually change their working practices, so the argument goes.

The Bakers' leader, Ronnie Draper, told me there was, in fact, an explicit industrial rationale behind the decision. He told a member of the ruling executive that McDonald's should be out unless they agree to discuss recognition of the union: "McDonald's is a serial abuser of working people, in particular young people, throughout the world. Why should we give credence to a company that behaves in such an abominable way against workers and give them airspace at a Labour Party conference, because it almost looks like we're justifying the things they do. Why should we give them any breathing space until they start falling in line with what the best employers do?"

Contrary to Streeting's claim that McDonald's has "shown a willingness to engage", Draper says the company has repeatedly refused even "to acquiesce to a meeting" with the Bakers' union. "I don't know Wes Streeting from Adam... but that is absolutely atrocious if he thinks it's got anything to do with Corbyn or anything to do with vegetarianism," he said.

A spokesperson from McDonald's said: "We are disappointed with the decision that has been taken. As with many other organisations, all employees of McDonald's UK, including our franchised restaurants, are entitled to join the membership of a union, however, we do not organise for them to meet with a particular union. In terms of contracts, we have recently announced a trial which is giving our people the choice of contracts and hours they are on, with 80 percent of people choosing to remain on the flexible contracts already in existence. In addition to this and with changes to the National Living Wage, our restaurant workers have experienced a pay rise, on average, in excess of 10 percent in the last six months."

It's hard to imagine that Labour's target-driven sales team will leave a gaping gap in the conference centre where McDonald's planned their "interactive experience" to display support for British farm produce – a cause to which we cannot doubt their commitment. No: Labour probably can't eliminate every bad employer from the seedy business of buying political influence. Everyone can make the slippery slope argument, but actually there's a value to singling out the high-profile cases. That's why every big corporation that was guilty of tax avoidance didn't make the campaigns against Vodafone or Starbucks a waste of time.

When Labour has a professed commitment to recruiting more working class candidates, newly recruited McDonald's workers were set to turn up to the party conference and find their bosses preaching their ethics. What does that signal? It's certainly not virtue.

@conradlandin

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