It's not petulant to refuse Tommy Robinson service - it's morally right

When a member of staff at Selfridges refused to serve the EDL leader, they were suspended from the store. But declining to interact with someone who sows hatred on a daily basis is a perfectly rational thing to do.

I’m not going to do the thing of listing all the other names under which Tommy Robinson is known. He has precisely as many AKAs as you would expect from a leader of a group in balaclavas and a former member of the BNP with a long history of arrests. I find his pseudonyms neither surprising nor amusing.

The facts are these: Mr Robinson and a friend were refused service at a Selfridges store. He protested and filmed the encounter. Selfridges have issued a statement expressing their disappointment at the incident. They said they pride themselves on making everyone welcome. The member of staff involved has been suspended. Tommy Robinson and his friend were treated to a complimentary three-course meal by Selfridges.

Was this an act of bravery by someone standing up to a dangerous bully or an act of arrogant unprofessionalism by someone not in a position to pass judgement on a paying customer? “It is not for staff to determine the policies of the organisations they work in through individual petulance”, suggests Mic Wright in the Telegraph. I may agree with the statement in the abstract, but find that it suffers fatally when applied to the actual circumstances.

The member of staff neither determined organisational policy, nor is there any evidence that acted through petulance. He simply refused to interact with a customer. Everyone would recognise that a member of staff has the right to refuse to interact with a customer under particular circumstances. People work for their employers; they do not belong to them. Security staff in bars and clubs routinely eject and ban patrons who are obnoxious, inappropriate or threatening.

Is such treatment reserved only for circumstances when they do so, right there and then? I suggest not. Consider the circumstance of an abusive former boyfriend entering an establishment where the recipient of his violent threats works as a waitress. Would anyone seriously suggest that she is obliged to recite today’s specials with a smile? Of course not.

The only question is, at what point does the behaviour become sufficiently personal? It is important to note that the members of staff filmed by Mr Robinson appeared to be of ethnic minority origin. Mr Robinson is the head of an organisation which goes around in balaclavas, threatening violence. He is the head of an organisation which speaks to “every single Muslim” and warns them that they will feel “the full force of the EDL”. He is the head of an organisation which advocates “all Muslims rounded up and deported back to the hell Holes [sic] they came from.” He was arrested a mere ten days ago for incitement. He was only released on bail ten days before that after his previous arrest. He had only been released on bail with an electronic tag at the beginning of the year for his last conviction.

If he had walked into Selfridges and gone up to this member of staff and said: “You will soon feel the full force of the EDL. I’m going to deport you back to the hellhole from which you came. Down with Sharia law” there would be absolutely no question as to whether the member of staff was within his rights to refuse him service. Well, this is absolutely what he has done. To suggest that threatening and inciting violence, as leader of a movement, indiscriminately against an entire group somehow absolves him from personal responsibility to individual members of that group is ridiculous.

The implication that someone can go around sowing hatred on a daily basis and then reap nothing but good will and professional service is not only inane in the extreme, but also unrealistic. I applaud the member of staff who was brave enough to say “not on this counter, not on my shift”. If Selfridges decide that it is now store policy to force their members of staff to interact with known dangerous fascists and criminals, I am certain the publicity backlash will be commensurate.

Mr Robinson was thrown out of a casino that same evening. I am sure that, in a past littered with criminal activity, he has been thrown out of many places. If he chooses a future of advocating violence and intolerance against entire groups, he can expect to be thrown out of many more. He can look upon this not as a one-off incident where he was refused service at a store, but as an ever-increasing pattern of decent people refusing to engage with him in any civilised context. He dreams of a society where people like me don’t exist. I dream of a society where thugs like him haven’t a single rock under which to crawl. This is not a negotiable position nor one for which there is room for pleasantries.

The malice Mr Robinson’s views encourage and the damage they cause are neither petulant nor imagined. The other day a young lad slammed into me with his bicycle while I was coming out of a local shop. He said “watch it”. I said “the pavement is for pedestrians”. He replied “you’re fucking foreign, innit?” before adding “this country is going to the dogs”. He spoke emboldened and amplified by Robinson’s voice. If either of them walked into a shop where I worked, I would not serve them. Either you get that as being totally within my rights or you don’t.

An EDL supporter awaits the arrival of Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll at Westminster Magistrates Court on 11 September 2013. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496