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Inside Wetherspoon’s ‘low pay’ fringe meeting at Tory Party conference

Pub chain boss Tim Martin spoke at an event on lousy jobs alongside Esther McVey and Iain Duncan Smith, days before facing strike action by his own workers. SOLOMON HUGHES reports

WORKERS at pub chain JD Wetherspoon joined crew from McDonald’s and TGI Friday’s and riders from UberEats this week for an unprecedented day of strike action.

It was a rebellion against low pay, zero-hours contracts, phoney self-employment and other abuses in the fast-food and service sector.

Earlier this week, one of the bigger meetings on the Conservative fringe, addressed by both Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey former work and pensions secretary and big man on the Tory right Iain Duncan Smith, considered the big question of “Is the Conservative Party making work pay?” 

The meeting about low pay and poor careers was organised by Duncan Smith’s think tank, the Centre for Social Justice. The meeting was paid for by JD Wetherspoon. 

Tim Martin, chair of JD Wetherspoon, sat on the platform alongside McVey and Duncan Smith. 

Wetherspoon paid for the prosecco, which was served free to all the 150 or so delegates, and the room hire. 

The event was held in the Symphony Ballroom of the luxury Hyatt hotel, inside the secure zone of the Conservative conference in Birmingham. Costs for room and refreshments will have been several thousand pounds.

The meeting shows the trap the Conservatives have set for themselves. The Tory Party knows it is genuinely threatened by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.  

Chancellor Philip Hammond told the main conference that he believes “Labour’s answers will solve nothing,” but “their questions deserve a response.” 

Long years of stagnant low wages, “gig economy” exploitation, housing shortages and welfare cuts are attracting voters to Corbyn’s message about the need for government action to change the rigged economy.

But, when the Tories try to face these problems, their rigid “free market” economics and love affair with big business block off even token reforms.

So a big fringe meeting on low pay means listening to the boss of JD Wetherspoon, days before he faces a strike over low pay. 

Martin told the delegates that the government really couldn’t do anything about low pay. According to him, the best advice from government came from right-wing US president Ronald Reagan, who said: “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

Throughout the hour-and-a-half meeting, not one delegate even mentioned trade unions. The idea of legislating for better pay or conditions was off the table. In the past Martin, opposed even the Tories’ limited pay reforms. He attacked the Tories’ “living wage” when it was introduced in 2015. 

But with Martin paying for the room and the booze, this was all forgotten. The Conservative delegates and minister were so sycophantic to Wetherspoon that even Martin was embarrassed. 

One delegate compared Wetherspoon to 19th century reforming “model employer” businesses like Cadbury’s and Rowntrees, suggesting the government should consider “using Wetherspoon as a case study, heralding businesses like that.” 

McVey agreed “absolutely,” saying the government should consider “how do we multiply and have many more Wetherspoons.” 

Only Martin disagreed with this Wetherspoon worship, saying this was “flattering,” but the idea of making Wetherspoon some kind of official model would “frighten the living daylights out of a hell of a lot of the British public.”

At the meeting, Duncan Smith backed up the case that governments can do nothing about pay and conditions. 

IDS told the meeting: “Every time we vote for a new regulation or a new restriction on business, each of these costs a business money. 

“Every time it costs a business money that means their profits are going to be less. If they have fewer profits they can’t afford to pay better salaries.”

He also insisted that, “when the Labour Party tells you zero-hours contracts are evil, they are lying.”

The only policy IDS proposed was to “restrict immigration and restrict benefits for migrants” as he blamed low wages on migrants doing low-paid jobs. 

Meanwhile McVey told the meeting that the much-criticised universal credit benefit would help those on the bottom because it is “cutting-edge technology, cutting-edge thought.”

Let them eat Primark

TREASURY Minister Liz Truss had a similar free-market brain-block at a separate Conservative conference fringe meeting on “Inclusive Capitalism.” 

Speakers were worried that Corbyn’s Labour was doing well because, post-crash, there was a loss of faith in “free-market capitalism.” 

The standard Tory answers — to rumble on about the Soviet Union or how bad British Rail sandwiches were — doesn’t really cut it with younger voters, who can’t remember either. How do the Tories find new language for the right? 

Truss said: “What do we need to do to turn the situation round? First of all, we need to communicate to everybody, particularly those growing up now, that all the freedoms they enjoy, whether it’s posting pictures of themselves on the internet or shopping at Primark, those freedoms are down to having a free-market economy.”

In the French Revolution Queen Marie Antoinette knew the answer for rioting hungry peasants. It was “Let them eat cake!”  

Young voters, stuck in overpriced, shabby flats that suck up 50 per cent of their stagnant wages are turning to Corbyn. 

But Truss thinks shouting: “Let them wear Primark” or “Let them post on Instagram” will bring them back to “free-market” Toryism.  
Truss was also worried that “the left has succeeded in pinning all the blame on bankers” for the financial crisis.

The Tory conference was obsessed with the danger of Corbyn. The Tory right, like Truss and IDS, is arguing that a new wave of “free-market reforms” and rigidly restating the Thatcherite case will see Corbynism off. 

Theresa May and the Cameroon-ish centre is arguing that the Tories must try adding a few watered-down Labour policies to the Conservative mix to try heading off the Labour threat. 

The party can’t really agree which approach is better, leading to a kind of angry stand-off and stasis in a party that has run out of energy.

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