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The New Statesman’s ultimate Christmas lunchbreak guide 2016

What to eat and what not to eat while working during the festive season.

We all know the best thing about the festive season is working all the way up to Christmas Eve, so here’s a list of the best (and worst) high street Christmas lunch food my colleagues and I have painstakingly chewed up and spat out for your delectation:

Lunchbreak failsafes

Pret

Pret’s Christmas Lunch Sandwich, £3.60

Very much a Christmas sandwich by numbers this one – all the key ingredients of a traditional Christmas lunch, plus the inexplicable addition of mayonnaise. It’s a little too full, bits kept falling out, and while it’s not the best Christmas sandwich out there, it’s a solid midtable effort. Stephen Bush

Melvin the Melting Gingerbread Snowman, £1.25

If you take a morbid pleasure in melting a snowman, then Melvin is the gingerbread character for you. His marshmallow head wobbles above his dripping white icing body, but it’s only when you dunk Melvin in your tea that he truly crumbles into nothing but hot water. A festive treat. Julia Rampen

French Brie & Cranberry Toastie, £4.25 

Major disappointment. Tasted like feet, and not in the great cheese kind of way (more like Rachel from Friends’ traditional English trifle/shepherd’s pie way). I didn’t know it was possible to ruin brie. Pinja Saarikoski

Very Merry Christmas Lunch Vegan Baguette, £3.75

Great vegan sandwich, although the Christmas bells weren’t really a-ringing. Tasted more like a Moroccan feast, with the spicy, peppery veggies and pistachios. But I guess Christmas comes in all shapes and sizes, and it’s not always with turkey and stuffing. Pinja

Ham Hock & Sprout Macaroni Cheese, £5.50

We have reached peak comfort. Macaroni cheese: officially the world’s most comforting comfort food according to an extensive survey of all tastebuds and dopamine receptors. And Pret: the high street’s strong arms cradling you when you’re weak and vulnerable on a hungover mid-week lunchbreak, gently extracting a fiver in exchange for your regular dose of deliciously predictable flavours. This is what you get: a thick, creamy sauce with sprouts so cheese-drenched you’d never guess they were sprouts at all, and some unnecessary ham hock just to make it a bit Christmassy. Anoosh Chakelian

EAT

Festive Full Works Bloomer, £3.95

The texture of the bread is excellent and the serving of turkey and rocket is more than generous. But something about the after-taste doesn’t sit well. A potentially related disappointment is the failure of the press team to establish the meat’s exact provenance. While the ham has been procured “from the EU, with pigs raised in barns with natural sunlight”, the turkey “is cooked in the UK but is sourced from overseas”. India Bourke

Christmas Cheeseboard Bloomer, £3.96

This Eat sandwich takes its inspiration from a classic Christmas cheeseboard. As someone who is more excited by the abundance of yuletide cheese than Christmas presents, this was already right up my street. But cheese-filled Christmas sandwiches can often be bland, stodgy and – the greatest sin any festive meal can commit – boring. That’s not the case here. The cheddar is robust and nicely paired with soft, almost ricotta-like wensleydale, the multiseed bloomer pleasingly rustic, and the whole affair is well-seasoned with lemon and black pepper. But the inspired addition of slow-roasted figs and figgy pudding chutney are what turns a good, solid sandwich into a brilliant one. All in all, it leads to an unusual, irresistible taste and texture combo that is decidedly cheeseboard-esque. Anna Leszkiewicz

Brie and Truffle Mac ‘n’ Cheese, £6.50 for large portion

Hello! Is it brie you’re looking for? Well, this mac 'n' cheese has a lot of it. Loads. Tons. But it’s not the best brie in town – mild to the point of flavourlessness, but incredibly thick, this often felt more like an overly stodgy carbonara.  As for the alleged truffle – I couldn’t get so much as a whiff of it. Dull and heavy, for the price and whopping 1,000+ calories, this feels conspicuously lacking in luxury, despite the rumoured posh ingredients. (NB: This comes with an option of cranberry sauce, which I turned down. It’s possible that makes all the difference… but I’d be surprised.) Anna

Paul

Dinde de Noël baguette, £4.50

Paul’s “Dinde de Noel” is another sandwich suffering from the curse of the Christmas Cranberry. Once invisible in the UK at yuletide, the cranberry has gradually invaded the festivities, a culinary equivalent of  the green parakeet. In this case they are embedded in the baguette like war journalists, immovable and advancing on all the other flavours. Which is a shame as the turkey is nice, the spinach admirable in its attempts to get us to eat our greens on the sly and the baguette itself a vast improvement on yet another supermarket sandwich. Pretty good value too. I did find the horseradish isolated in one corner, but having it as well as the cream cheese is another case of excess. One or the other but not both. Stephen Brasher

Greggs

Greggs Festive Bake, £1.50

As my colleague ever so astutely observed last year, the Greggs Festive Bake is not actually a Christmas sandwich. A year on, that is still the case, but it remains a deliciously good value handful of crispy pastry and well-spiced turkey filling. The dusting of oniony-sagey crumbs on top of the pastry really improves what is a complex and satisfying flavour profile. If you’re already a fan of the versatile foodstuff that is the Greggs bake (and you should be: what other treat is always piping hot, can be eaten with one hand on the bus and costs less than £2?) you will love this Christmassy twist on a well-loved format. Caroline Crampton

Greggs Turkey Bacon and Cranberry Roll, £1.50

It’s like a sausage roll but with turkey, bacon and little cranberries instead of sausagemeat. My love of Greggs has spiralled out of control since they introduced their £2 coffee and bacon roll deal, and I love the sausage roll, but this didn’t quite work – the flavours don’t really blend, you just have a lot of turkey, the odd bit of bacon and a cranberry every now and then. It felt unnervingly like eating catfood. Stephen Bush

Benugo

Honey roast pulled ham and smoked cheddar bloomer, £3.75

A great sandwich, this manages to taste weirdly healthy yet also delicious, perhaps down to its deep brown bread. The cheese is plasticky and thin, in that perfect sliced way, contrasting nicely with the texture of the pulled pork. Token rocket adds to the virtue factor; the chutney takes it away again. Hearty. Helen Lewis

As someone who is not an enthusiastic meat-eater, I approached the ham sandwich with trepidation and no little guilt, but found it unexpectedly delicious – the combination of the bread, the cheese, the high-quality ham, and the chutney, if indeed it was chutney, made it a very pleasurable experience – even if I did feel a little bit guilty about eating ham. Jason Cowley

Brie, pistachio, spiced apple and chutney baguette, £3.75​

I feel about this sandwich the way I felt about my first love – though it would do me no wrong, it lacks true passion. The acidic tang of the chutney overpowers the brie, leaving me with the sensation of eating a chutney sandwich. If that’s what you want, go forth. If it isn’t, go elsewhere. Amelia Tait

Turkey, bacon and cranberry baguette, £4.25 

Another where the bread is the star – yeasty and wholesome. A good balance of flavours between the turkey and bacon, and a generous helping of cranberry sauce, plus the inevitable token rocket. Not too salty, not too sweety, and there’s even a cheeky bit of stuffing in there. The mayonnaise is possibly OTT, but really, who cares? Helen

This is slightly sweet, slightly salty and very Christmassy. Its cranberry, sage and horseradish flavourings are well-balanced. And while it’s no River Cottage in the wholesome stakes, it feels satisfyingly nutritious – a sensation backed-up by the later revelation (from their press team) that all their “turkey farms adhere to ISO901:2008 standard.” (That’s a good thing.) Plus, “the turkey is produced in South Yorkshire using exclusively British birds. The bacon is produced in Scotland using pork form the UK and EU. The pork in the stuffing is of UK origin and is also produced in Scotland.” You can taste it. India

Leon

Leon Christmas Wrap, £5.45​

“It would be Rudolph not to,” says the blurb for Leon’s hot wrap, featuring turkey, stuffing and ham hock. While I’m willing to award points for the triple meatiness, there is overall something a little generic about this wrap. Because it’s served hot, all the flavours smudge together, and the fresh spinach barely intrudes on the mix. Still, the cranberry and port sauce lifts the experience, adding sweetness what could otherwise be a weighty proposition. Helen

The Leon x Gizzi Christmas Turkey Curry, £6.45

Always a little bit afraid to find out who Gizzi Erskine actually is for fear of becoming an adult, I approached Leon’s Gizzi Christmas Turkey Curry with some apprehension. Everything from Leon is so wholesome and grainy and aspirational, it puts my usual eating habits in unflattering, baked bean-flavoured contrast. But this curry was delicious. The creamy, lightly spiced sauce was a lovely accompaniment to the juicy hunks of carrot and parsnip. Unusually, the turkey had some flavour too – lifted valiantly by the generous sprinkling of crispy onions. Apparently the Erskine family has this recipe on Boxing Day – a far cry from the customary stale crisps and backwash-addled Baileys, but almost as tasty. Anoosh

The Leon x Gizzi Pistachio & Pomegranate Sprout Salad, £2.25 out/£2.70 in

Even stalwart vegetarian colleagues were a little appalled at the idea of this pistachio and pomegranate sprout salad. And they were right not to let me palm it off on them. Although each of the flavours work on their own, the jarring mixture gives the impression of a salad that doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be. The pomegranate dressing is tart and sweet, the pistachio crunchy and earthy, and the mint and dill sort of pointless. Maybe it’s all just to cover up the flavour of the one actually festive ingredient: sprouts. But even uniting against this common enemy doesn’t give the salad’s component parts much cohesion. Anoosh

The Leon x Gizzi Mince Pie, £1.60 out/£1.90 in

Apparently this mince pie is wheat-free and infused with orange zest and earl grey. But what isn’t these days? I think I had a bikini wax of that description the other week. Anyway, regardless of its special features, this simply tasted like a very nice, very compact, very regular mince pie. Anoosh

Supermarket sweep

Tesco

Tesco Wensleydale & Spiced Carrot Chutney, £2.00

As soon as you open this sandwich, it smells like Christmas. The chutney to cheese ratio is one of the best I’ve ever seen, with equal servings of both making for the perfect consistency and taste. The fact it is carrot (carrot!) barely registers, and the overall sensation is extremely pleasant. That said, the perforated edges of the sandwich box were not properly perforated and thus it was difficult to open, something you might want to consider if you like an easy life. Amelia

Hovering somewhere between your standard cheese and pickle and the festive staple brie and cranberry, there isn’t much flourish to this Tesco sandwich. It’s what it says on the tin – cheese, chutney, plus a bit of spinach thrown into the mix. There are no hidden surprises, but what’s there is pretty good – the full-bodied wensleydale actually tastes of something (unlike a lot of the brie offerings) and the carrot chutney suits. If this sandwich was a date, it would probably be the right level of friendly towards your parents. Not a love match, but nice enough. Anna

Tesco Pigs Under Blankets, £2.35

There was gristle in the mini sausages which was exceptionally off-putting and I’m too traumatised to finish this sentence. Other than that, flavours were good. Amelia

Tesco Finest Turkey Feast, £3.00

According to this sandwich, vegetables are something that happens to other people. I thoroughly approve. The flavours here aren’t subtle – meat, meat and more meat – but they are clean and more-ish. The malted brown bread is quite posh, but could be posher. Some might find the egg mayonnaise texture jarring alongside the crisp bacon, moist turkey and doughy chestnut stuffing. Helen

Aldi

Festive Feast sandwich, £1.59

Aldi’s “Festive Feast” is no worse and a bit better than some other turkey/bacon/cranberry/stuffing combinations from rival supermarkets and no-one could complain about the price as it is only £1.59. Strangely, Aldi itself seems a bit shy about it with its logo hidden on the reverse of the carton underneath the recycling information. The brand seems to be “Just Tasty”, though whether this is to make it look more upmarket or downmarket against other sandwiches isn’t clear. Santa Claus is coming to town but he doesn’t want you to know about it. Stephen Brasher

Brie and Cranberry sandwich, £1.29

There are no shortages of brie and cranberry sandwiches at this time of year – only one or two will separate themselves from the pack to impress your tastebuds. This sandwich doesn’t. It’s a perfectly fine offering, not horrible, but forgettable. The word I’d use to describe it is “functional”. For those who think Christmas food should be about so much more than mere survival, this is not the one for you – but at £1.29 we can’t complain. Anna

Waitrose

Waitrose Christmas Roast beef, stilton and quince with crispy onions, £3.95 

Waitrose is so good at being Waitrose isn’t it? It just really owns it. And nowhere does it lean further in to its status as lord of the supermarket manor than its roast beef, stilton and quince sandwich. It comes in a little box the shape of a house, for god’s sake. You basically buy property when you buy this sandwich. And it is a sophisticated affair – succulent beef, fiery stilton, the sweet hit of quince on your saliva-drenched tongue. You will never quite be able to look Tesco in the eye again. Also, thrillingly, it comes with a mini add-your-own bag of crispy onions. The bourgeois equivalent of the salt ‘n’ shake crisps sachet. Crunch ‘n’ class. Anoosh

Waitrose Christmas Clementine Juice, £1.40

A shameless hasty seasonal rebrand of, uh, some orange juice. But a little weaker and without bits in. Anoosh

Waitrose Christmas Sandwich, £3.20

I can't work out why this sandwich was terrible, but it was. Despite the fact that it has everything you'd want, the essentials of a good Christmas sandwich (turkey, stuffing, cranberry), it doesn't work. The ingredients were poor – the bacon sharp and flavourless, as if a piece of plastic had been left in, the stuffing dry, the turkey forgettable – the bread dry, the mayonnaise overpowering. Avoid. Stephen Bush

Heston Charcoal Bagel with Tea Smoked Salmond, £3.60

This is a really posh bagel. First of all, it’s black. Way classier than your standard beige, or flashy Instagram-courting rainbow. And it has a picture of an opulently-robed salmon on the front of the packet, tempting you in with its knowing gaze. The dill and “caraway pickled cucumber” (ie. a bit of gherkin) lift the flavour of the classic cream cheese and salmon combo. The only real Christmassy element is the lump of coal (ok, charcoal). It all tastes delicious, but there are far too many chia seeds on the bagel. They drop off everywhere and get stuck in your teeth. A middle-class nightmare. Anoosh

Sainsbury’s

Brie and Cranberry, £2.60

Tasty, not too sweet, but also could have been a little bit more robustly stuffed with ingredients. Julia

Taste the Difference Crab, King Prawn & Avocado Sandwich, £3

This seafood smorgasbord is the most delicious lunchtime snack I’ve had in some time. Like a kiss from the sea, or, more accurately, a snog with a mermaid. The avocado was a perfect creamy bed for the tangy but sweet meat. But if crab, prawn and avo mean festive flavours to you, then I’m sorry, but I don’t ever want to come to yours for Christmas dinner. It’s all about chewy and bland poultry, not poncey sea beasts. Anoosh

M&S

Scorched Squash with Beetroot & Pomegranate Relish wrap, £2.80

This sandwich is trying too hard. Yes, there’s parsnip mayonnaise. Yes, the sage and thyme wrap has a slight stuffing aftertaste. Yes, 5 per cent of the £2.80 cost goes to charity. But, no it is not remotely festive. Finding interesting veggie options at Christmas can be tough, I admit, but the best idea is often to keep it simple. What even is “scorched squash”? Serena Kutchinsky

Festive Feast Trio, £3.30

Trios are very Christmassy. The three wise men. Seeing three ships. The number of days you stick to your New Year’s resolution. So M&S gets points for its “Festive Feast Trio” just for that. But it’s also a passable seasonal platter, spread between three rolls. The “posh” prawn cocktail sandwich is only really posh by Seventies starter standards – the slimy prawns are lent an all-important crunch by the cucumber and lettuce, but it’s nothing special. Then there’s the turkey feast and brie, which doesn’t have much flavour at all – but that’s probably because it’s turkey and brie. The third wise sandwich, cheddar and grape chutney, is more moist and punchy. Basic dry, unflashy bread all round. It’s an ok selection if you can’t decide which sandwich to buy, but honestly, you should be able to decide this far down this article. Anoosh

Venison & Sour Cherry Chutney, £4.50

With the sale of Sir Edward Landseer’s most famous painting in the news, what better to accompany a viewing than a M&S Venison and Sour Cherry Chutney sandwich? It’s a winner but a little less filling would allow you to taste the venison properly and the sandwich would be more Monarch of the Glen and less “The Stag at Bay”. Stephen Brasher

Morrisons

Turkey Dinner Sandwich, £2.30

The full-works supermarket sandwiches tend to all merge into one, but this one is slightly better than the others – the cranberry sauce is a bit tarter and less pointless. Anoosh

The ghost of Christmas future

HUEL

Christmas Pudding Huel, £28 for 1.7kg (14 meals), £45 for two

“Nutritionally complete meals in a couple of minutes.” This is the message from techy flour merchants Huel (“human fuel”, not “gruel”, despite appearances). Yes, once climate change destroys all the Big Macs, the food of the future will come in varying sizes of clinical sealed white pouches, complete with a helvetica font. Its mission? To make whole meals “with minimal impact on animals and the environment”. If you’re an eco-friendly health fadder, this will be just your cup of powder.

As it’s Christmas, I tried the Christmas Pudding flavour. I mixed one scoop (38g, 152 calories – nearly a packet of Walker’s crisps, I wistfully discovered) in my special giant space beaker with the required amount of cold water. Then I drank a little bit of it. Then I shuddered. It tastes of over-diluted, grainy powdered milk, with a sprinkling of grated cardboard. It has the consistency (but none of the sugary flavour) of leftover cereal milk. The aftertaste is a sort of woody processed spice, like really cold tiny fragments of clove coating your tongue. The vanilla flavour is more palatable, but I reckon the best thing to do with this Christmas pudding is to set fire to it and leave it at that… Anoosh

Coffee shop pitstops

Costa

Turkey & All the Trimmings Toastie, £3.95

Quite pleasant but the overwhelming taste is of a wet turkey struggling to get out of a vat of cranberries and ultimately drowning. Stephen Brasher

Pigs in Blankets Panini, £4.25

I will admit I consumed this in sub-optimal conditions – heated in the office microwave, rather than grilled. But that doesn’t really excuse its blandness. I mean, come on. There are two types of pork here, plus “herby stuffing” and cranberry sauce, and the damn thing is 559 calories. How do you make anything 559 calories and not be nice? By this point, the conscientious dieter will already have mentally rejected this in favour of a chicken salad, so why not go the whole hog and put some more cheese in it? And yet nothing in here really tasted of anything more than “vague meat”.

Also, because the ciabatta hadn’t been stamped flat in a grill, it was difficult to keep the sausages – which were unpleasantly flaccid – under control. They slid out and nearly landed in my lap. (I should have taken this as a sign and abandoned them.) On a bitterly cold day, I can see this being a tempting option when it emerges toasty fresh from a grill, but it isn’t to be contemplated under any other circumstances. Helen

Gluten Free Turkey, Bacon and Cranberry Wrap, £3.20

There are two things you need in a successful wrap, whatever the time of year: an even spread of tasty ingredients and enough structural integrity that it won’t leak in your hands. Sadly, this offering from Costa could provide neither of these things in full measure. The turkey was more flavourful than in your average shop sandwich (ie, it had a slight poultry taste) but it, as well as the lettuce and bacon, had bunched at the top, meaning that after a couple of bites I was just eating wrap and sauce. And that sauce – the sweet cranberry jam had leaked out the bottom of both halves of my wrap, leaving me with unpleasantly sticky fingers. The wrap itself is slightly chalky in texture, as is usual with gluten free products (it’s made mostly from tapioca starch, according to the list of ingredients). The flavour combination is reassuringly Christmassy, but unfortunately the starchy wrap rather dampens any festive spirit this contender might have evoked. Caroline

Starbucks

Starbucks Turkey Feast baguette, £3.99

This one really is a feast: bacon AND turkey in a harmonious conversation with each other. Surprisingly the turkey tastes like what your momma makes at home, and there really is some smoky maple in the bacon. Some more cranberry chutney would perk it up to perfection, but all in all I’m left happy. Right until I remember it came from Starbucks, and start thinking about America. Pinja

Festive Veggie Feast baguette, £3.99

A Starbucks food sceptic, I did not expect to be won over by their Veggie Feast Baguette. But it was a triumph. The baguette is crispy on the outside, soft and doughy on the inside, the squash full of autumnal flavour, the sage and onion stuffing ensuring this is decidedly Christmas fare. But it’s the cheese that really makes the sandwich – there is absolutely tons of rich brie, thoroughly melted and paired with a delicious real ale chutney. While other festive veggie options can feel far too healthy to really count as Christmas food, this is indulgent in the best way. Anna

High street treat

Pizza Express

Porchetta Natale Romana Pizza, £13.20

Before going further, I must admit to being an unpicky Pizza Express fan. Give me anything on a Romana base and I’m yours. So it’s unsurprising that I loved the seasonal special “Porcetta Natale Romana”, which is apparently a “delectable twist on the classic Christmas roast dinner” – or “pigging delicious”, according to a more straightforward bit of the press release. It is a juicy and delicious meat feast: pulled pork, herby stuffing, glistening scrunches of pancetta. Its triumph is also its downfall, however. By bypassing the dull flavours of turkey it also ducks being an authentic Christmas dinner on a pizza. Anoosh

Snowball Dough Balls, £3.85

The only thing more delicious than fluffy balls of dough are fluffy balls of dough with wordplay attached. So it was with disappointment that I learned Pizza Express’ seasonal rebrand of its classic dough balls starter aren’t called snow balls. Not even snough balls. No, they’re called Snowball Dough Balls. Which is silly. Still, piping hot, dusted with cinnamon and dipped in rich vanilla cream, their sheer tastiness almost makes you forget the missed opportunity to pun. Almost. Anoosh

Cauliflower Cheese Romana Pizza, £12.50

Have you ever eaten a delicious pizza, dripping with cheese, smothered in garlic, and thought, “Nice, but what would make this really amazing is some cauliflower?” No? Well, Pizza Express assumes you have with its veggie Christmas special, Cauliflower Cheese. It always slightly amazes me what meat-eaters think will get vegetarians salivating – hint: not cauliflower! But this pizza is actually really nice, mostly because of its other winning ingredients: pecorino, “pink” onion, and pine kernals. It loses points for me for having no tomato. There’s nothing that draws me to this pizza over the chain’s other (brilliant, in my humble opinion) offerings, but it’s not bad either. Anna

The artisan choice

Forman & Field

Traditional Smoked Salmon & Cream Cheese Bagel, the “Boris Bagel”,​ £5.95 for two

It’s the “Boris Bagel”, from the people who brought you the Boris Bike and the Boris Bus... Except this is not double-decker and you can open it, unlike a Boris Bus window. Actually H Forman & Son are the oldest remaining salmon smokery on Fish Island in the East End, an area once home to London’s largest Jewish population and still several legendary bagel shops. This bagel has definitely got that authentic chewy, glossy quality familiar to regulars at Brick Lane’s 24-hour Beigel Bake, and a world away from crumby supermarket fare. You know when you have top-quality smoked salmon, and this is it: a classy shade of pink, and you can taste that swirling oak smoke. It’s offset by some nice creamy cream cheese, and elevated with chopped chives and lemon juice. Not exactly a Christmassy choice – perhaps one for Hannukah. What makes it Boris-y? It seems it was named after him after he sang the praises of Forman’s, and opened their new factory. But that was back when he was Mayor of London. Does Brexit mean bagels too? Oh and where’s the Sadiq Sarnie? Tom Calvocoressi

Letterbox lunch

Graze

Merry Mince Pie Flapjacks, £1.19

It is arguably against the very spirit of baby Jesus to eat something that tastes like a mince pie but is not a mince pie. This, however, is good news for mail-order desk snack connoisseurs Graze’s Mince Pie Flapjack, as – despite the name – it tastes nothing like the traditional festive offering at all. What it does taste like, however, is gingerbread, which is fine, really. Better for everyone. As a spicy, Christmas flapjack, this will warm your bellies. As a mince pie? It is nought. Amelia

Posh crisps

Fairfield’s Farm

Kelly Bronze Turkey, Sage & Onion crisps, 80p

These high-quality crisps have a satisfying thickness, reminiscent of Kettle Chips and other similarly posh potato-based snacks. The simple, stylish black packaging is eye-catching. And you can assuage waistline guilt safe in the knowledge that this is a product with strong eco-credentials – the crisps are hand-cooked on a family-run farm in Essex using as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. The only problem is the flavour. The turkey taste is weak, and the sage and punchy onion is overwhelming. The overall effect is that on the first bite they seem flavour-free, only for a salty aftertaste to hit seconds later. Definitely one for sharing, rather than solitary scoffing. Serena

All images are publicity shots from the respective outlets, apart from those used to illustrate Waitrose and HUEL, which are the author's own.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.