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.

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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