A Labour-supporting union has pledged to organise protests at Labour conference if McDonald's is allowed to have a stand at the event, after a row over the fast-food chain spiralled into a bizarre proxy battle over control of the party.
It shows the extent to which Jeremy Corbyn is having to fight every step of the way to maintain control of the Labour party and the growing influence of some relatively niche campaign groups such as the previously obscure Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU).
McDonald's had offered to pay £30,000 for a corporate stall to promote its business at the Labour conference in Liverpool, an event where party members, politicians, and lobbyists gather to decide policy, listen to speeches, and get drunk in hotel bars.
But the fast-food chain didn't take into account the growing influence of the BFAWU, an unashamedly old-school trade union that was previously on the fringes of the Labour movement but has suddenly risen to prominence under Corbyn's party leadership, securing a place on Labour's top decision-making body in the process.
A small union that represents just 20,000 workers, the Bakers used their new influence within Labour to block the chain's attempt to pay for a presence at the Labour conference, on the basis that McDonald's pays low wages and doesn't recognise unions.
Corbyn's internal Labour opponents responded by attacking the decision to reject £30,000 of cash that would have gone into party funds, with Wes Streeting MP – himself a former McDonald's worker – saying the decision “smacks of a snobby attitude towards fast-food restaurants and people who work or eat at them”. Other MPs lined up to attack Corbyn in person at the weekly meeting of the parliamentary Labour party, where they insisted the party needed the funds and that McDonald's is a decent employer.
Corbyn stood firm but sources on Labour's National Executive Committee (NEC), which has the final say on the decision, backed up earlier reports on PoliticsHome suggesting centrist Labour activists would now attempt to reverse the ban and allow McDonald's to attend the conference.
"In NEC terms they’re far-left, their representative is very, very left-wing," said one source, who pointed out banning companies from party conference had previously been used only for companies that broke the law rather than those that were considered immoral.
But now the leader of the BFAWU – which represents fast-food workers – has told BuzzFeed News he will organise "massive protests" at the conference if pro–fast food centrist Labour politicians succeed in overturning the ban on the chain.
"I will do everything in my power to make sure they do not get in," insisted general secretary Ronnie Draper, attacking the centrists "for allowing in McDonald's, a totally anti-union company".
"It’s not just about finances, you have to take a moral stand," he said. "You can't sell your soul to the devil.
"Jeremy’s probably one of the best things that’s happened to the Labour party in years. I’ve spoken to Labour leaders before but Jeremy – I don’t want to say he kowtows to unions but he’s always got an ear for unions.”
The union's members can't believe their luck in gaining mainstream Labour recognition for their campaigns, in part thanks to their early support of Jeremy Corbyn. It was the first union to endorse him for party leader last summer when he was still seen as an outsider. In return, Corbyn has stayed close to the organisation: It received a specific namecheck in Corbyn's victory speech, he travelled to a youth event in Scarborough to speak at a fringe meeting it had organised, and the Labour leader has always made time in his schedule to join its campaigns.
The BFAWU has given limited financial support to Labour in recent years, donating just £7,400 to party funds during the 2015 election year – less than a quarter of the amount that could have been raised by selling the McDonald's stall. But it insists it is now committed to the party.
"It’s been great, said Draper. "It’s not like I can just pick up the phone to Jeremy and what we want, he does. But he listens... We are bringing fresh ideas to the Labour party and in particular the executive. We have a Labour leadership who are listening."
In the process it succeeded in securing a place for its representative on the Labour NEC, an organisation that is largely unknown by the general public but which has control over the party.
But at the same time it infuriated centrist Labour MPs because it replaced a representative on the NEC from the centrist Community union, which acts for the likes of steelworkers and had endorsed the more centrist Yvette Cooper for leader.
But the bakers' union remains defiant. It claims its pressure helped this week to push McDonald's into reducing the use of zero-hours contracts, and it will fight a rearguard action to keep the company out of Labour events.
"I don’t see where there’s any moral code from them in having McDonald's," said the union's general secretary. "As part of a Labour organisation, born out of the trade unions, why we would have someone who is totally anti–trade union?"
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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