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Labour's McDonald's ban is virtue signalling of the worst kind

It may feel very principled to turn down an exhibition booking, but that’s not how Party staff who are being laid off will see it.

The Labour Party risks cutting off its nose to spite its face with the decision to ban McDonald’s from having an exhibition space at this year’s Party conference. It is a decision that will cost the Labour Party financially and politically, and not simply because the Golden Arches are a popular destination.

First up, a declaration of interest. I used to work in McDonald’s. Serving customers helped me pay my way through my A-levels. I enjoyed it, for the most part.

Fast forward fifteen years and McDonald’s, like many other exhibitors and event organisers at the Labour Party conference, pay for the privilege of having a space to talk to Labour Party members, which in turn means cash in the bank to spend on Labour candidates fighting elections across the country. As someone who won both a Council seat and a parliamentary seat from the Tories, I know better than most how much well-resourced campaigns matter. People power counted enormously, but so did the support from the national Party: the guidance from experienced Labour Party staff, the support in designing materials, and the funding towards a local organiser. Elections don’t come cheap.

So I must admit to being somewhat baffled by the decision to turn down £30,000 from one of the most popular fast food outlets in the UK. If McDonald’s had offered to sponsor our childhood obesity strategy, I might have understood the conflict. But a ‘source close the Labour leader’ has said today that “McDonald’s have failed every test when it comes to union recognition and decent employment standards”.  We should be shown those tests so that potential exhibitors know the standards they are to be judged by.

I’d like McDonald’s to recognise a trade union and to pay the real (as opposed to George Osborne’s) Living Wage. These are issues that go wider than McDonald’s. Frankly, they are issues across the whole service sector of our economy – something that’s recognised as a challenge by the Low Pay Commission. But they’re also an employer that’s recognised for their investment in skills and training, grassroots sport and local communities.

By applying arbitrary and unseen tests to McDonald’s, whoever took this decision to ban them from the exhibition space has opened the Labour Party up for months of tying ourselves in knots about every exhibitor at Labour Party conference. Previous exhibitors at our conference include banks, multinational corporations we’ve criticised about their tax affairs and a whole raft of charities that don’t have a recognised trade union or don’t pay a real Living Wage. Will we ban them? Will the Labour Party now be called to justify the commercial or employment practices of every exhibitor or fringe organiser? If we do, our exhibition and fringe will seem a bit sparse.

Let’s have a serious debate about improving employment rights and practices in Britain. I’m not new to debates about bans and boycotts. I encountered them during my time as President of the National Union of Students. We had calls to boycott the likes of McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Nestlé. We preferred to use the weight of students unions’ collective purchasing power to constructively engage with companies to change their commercial practices. It seems that students then were more enlightened than the Labour Party appears to be now. We can make a difference in opposition by having a dialogue with businesses – like McDonald’s, who have shown a willingness to engage and have recently moved on zero hour contracts to give staff the choice to move onto contracts with guaranteed hours. We can make an even bigger difference if we’re in Government, as we did when we introduced the National Minimum Wage, signed up to the EU Social Chapter for employment rights and introduced better conditions on issues like maternity and paternity pay.

This whole fiasco smacks of virtue signalling of the worst kind. It may feel very principled to turn down an exhibition booking, but that’s not how Party staff who are being laid off will see it. Nor will many Party members who will be asked to stump up the shortfall with yet another raffle or fundraising event on top of the hours of their time they donate to getting Labour candidates elected.

If Labour is to engage in gesture politics I’d prefer the kind of gesture that doesn’t see candidates sold short, Party workers needlessly laid off and members making up the shortfall. Even better, we could engage seriously with business and champion employment rights as a party of government rather than a party of protest.

Wes Streeting is the Labour MP for Ilford North and a member of the Treasury Select Committee 

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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