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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 

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge