I have a problem with suspended coffees

The carbon credits of the coffee business are just a fad.

Suspended coffees are a recent phenomenon, atleast etymologically. Large hearted coffee house and restaurant patrons have been leaving behind 'suspended' meals and drinks for eons. The only difference being that now a spontaneous act of charity has been hijacked by the most pernicious of all tax avoiders in the UK.

Before we term this post as super-hipster balderdash, let's consider a few sobering truths. Starbucks played so truant with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) that even Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to dish out a little cautionary word to the company. Cameron said that tax-avoiders "need to wake up and smell the coffee". How poetic.

You know you have over-stepped your tax-avoidance quota when the Tories lash out at you. Starbucks has certainly done that. It paid all of £8.6 million in corporation tax in its 14 years of trading in the UK.It sold £400 million worth of overpriced coffee, muffins and pretentious thingamajigs.

We all know the big bad wolf that devours independent coffee shops, we all know of the poorly paid baristas and the insufferable smug patrons who frequent the Starbucks of our world.

The Marketing Magazine calls Starbucks’ campaign as a way to improve its Corporate Social Responsibility credentials after last year’s tax evasion debacle. At the height of the tax scandal, Starbucks’ market share dropped significantly in the UK. Guardian reported in April this year that Starbucks’ market share had dropped by seven percent since last year. In the same period Costa Coffee's market share went up seven percent.

Suspended coffees are the planking of philanthropy. They are the carbon credits of the coffee business. They are a fad. And we have all fallen for them. We have been had.

By giving an act of kindness a name and a setting such as Starbucks cheapens the goodness. All of Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram are abuzz with posts about old weather-beaten homeless chaps in grimy jackets and week old stubbles supping on the cup of coffee. Cue boastful philanthropy.

Yes, it might do the odd down and out the good, and yes I might be seen as thrashing the very Piniata of all that is good in the world but what happened to good old altruistic do-gooding? What next; The Society for Getting Frail Old Ladies Across the Street? The I Sent a Penny to Poor Africans when I Bought a Bottle of Mineral Water Society?

It is not the act of goodness that rankles; it is reframing of it as a fad. Because fads don't last. Oh, and the very sanctimonious lot that think they are doing a world of good by leaving behind suspended coffees on the counters of Starbucks, Café Neros and of Costa Coffee are not only stuffing in money in the coffers of companies that avoid tax but are also giving them free publicity.

My problem is with how quickly we forgive and forget those that have played you and I. In its investor reports Starbucks reported massive profits and an expanding empire. Back in the UK it reported losses. Can we ever trust them?

Our dependence on coffee is clear to see. Any why not? One might as well substitute coffee for opium; De Quincey's’ Pleasures of Opium: “If taken in a proper manner it introduces the most exquisite order, legislation and harmony...communicates serenity and equipoise to all faculties, active or passive...the sort of vital warmth which is approved by the judgement.”  The humble coffee bean harvested, roasted and ground is worthy of a modern day paean of its own.

 It is by far the most perfect PR strategy ever. Nay, not a penny spent on it and you actually rake in money as the Che' crowd leave behind 'suspended' coffees.

Your coffee houses tended to be a place for the disgruntled hatching plots. They tended to be mutinous furnaces with the crackle of hot-blooded old and young. Today, they are boring monochrome monstrosities. The coffee is liquefied cardboard served in cardboard meant for a facsimile clientele.

Give me back the Italian espresso bars in Soho with their formica topped tables speckled with gum, where coffee was cheap and the caffeine content jarring, where failed actresses wore bootcut jeans with failing hems. Give me back my Pellici's and my Alfredo's. Give me back my messiness, my grubbiness, my coffee tinged darkness and dankness.

And never mind the suspended coffees.

Photograph: Getty Images

Ritwik Deo is currently working on his first novel, about an Indian butler in Britain.

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain