It seems to me entirely possible that this general election will mark the demise of the Labour Party as a party of government. It could be reduced to the status of a left-wing protest group that is more concerned with its own ideological purity than with making the compromises necessary to widen its electoral appeal and actually win elections. This is a development which should concern all who believe that representative democracy requires a choice between two or more political parties that are at least electable, even if you don’t necessarily agree with their policy approach.
Since the financial crisis of 2008 the central political question for Europe has been: Will the political centre hold? Or will we see populist or extremist parties gaining power because they have fooled their electorates into believing there can be simple solutions to complex problems. The election of Macron in France and defeat of Le Pen; the defeat of Geert Wilders in Holland and, I anticipate, the re-election of Angela Merkel in Germany does suggest that it will hold.
But in all these countries there are credible political parties of centre-right and centre-left to the parties that have actually won. Not so in the UK. The Liberal Democrats appear not to be making a breakthrough by attracting the votes of sensible Labour supporters that want to vote for a centre-left party as opposed to a bunch of Trots. So, what we could see after the election is not just a landslide Tory victory, but a Tory government whose only effective political opposition may come from within its own ranks.
Meanwhile, what does Labour have to say about pubs and alcohol? For starters, Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow Home Secretary is a dedicated anti-alcohol zealot, but all of a sudden Labour seems to have woken up to the scale of pub closures by pledging “We will set up a National Review of Local Pubs to examine the causes for the large-scale demise of pubs.” They might start by looking at their own 2005 manifesto which promised to legislate to ensure that all enclosed public places and workplaces – other than licensed premises – would be smoke-free. The exception would be restaurants and food-led pubs that would be smoke-free, but wet-led pubs and members’ clubs would have a choice. Labour rebels conspired to ensure that those exemptions were not in the legislation and we ended-up with the smoking ban - which has done a huge amount to damage pubs and beer sales. Jeremy Corbyn voted for these measures and is not in any position to preside over an objective review of why over 11,000 pubs closed between 2007 and 2013 – even in the remotely unlikely event that Labour is elected.
So, what might alcohol policy look like after the election in what will effectively be an elective dictatorship? Historically, the Conservatives were generally much more sympathetic to the trade in beverage alcohol, and did much to defend its interests from the 1870s onwards; and it was thanks to the opposition of Conservative peers in the House of Lords that the attempt by the Liberal government of Herbert Asquith to close 30,000 of the nation’s 96,000 pubs over 14 years, and nationalise the rest was defeated.
The Conservative-led coalition government, formed after the 2010 general election, promised some radical supply-side changes to the way in which the sale of alcohol was regulated: a review of alcohol policy which led to the introduction of EMAROs and the Late Night Levy; banning below-cost sales of alcohol; and tackling underage drinking. In 2012 the Conservatives were minded to go further and to introduce minimum unit pricing – a policy that had long been championed by the health lobby and that had passed into law in Scotland, albeit not been implemented due to legal challenge.
However, attempts at introducing EMAROs have been thwarted by concerted and unified opposition from the trade and the late night levy has so far been introduced by only eight local authorities, and moreover, the policy has been panned by the recent House of Lords review of the Licensing Act 2003.
Then we saw what the health lobby regarded as a great betrayal: minimum pricing was abandoned by the Conservative-led coalition government, or at least kicked into the long grass for lack of evidence regarding its efficacy, and with the convenient excuse that we should in any event await the outcome of the legal challenge to minimum pricing in Scotland that will be resolved by our own Supreme Court at a hearing on July 24-25 this year. Minimum pricing was also contrary to the Conservative ideological opposition to anything that compromised free markets, and faced considerable opposition within Conservative ranks for that reason, as well as the more pragmatic opposition that arose out of the need to avoid measures that raised prices and gave ammunition to Labour charges of a “cost of living crisis.”
We can but hope that the traditional Conservative opposition to price fixing and market regulation, combined with the huge amount of work to implement Brexit, will mean that alcohol policy in the new one-party state is something they just won’t find time for.