Gerry Sutcliffe, the Labour Licensing minister, has got himself into trouble by publicly disagreeing
with the government’s policy. Referring to the alcohol tax rises imposed by Alistair Darling, the chancellor, in his latest budget, Sutcliffe said:
"I think the [pub] industry’s right to be upset. We, and I speak as a champion of the pub trade, want the chancellor to change his mind… The next opportunity will be the pre-Budget report in November."
Oops. I bet he’s not looking forward to his next meeting with the prime minister! In fairness, he subsequently ‘corrected’ himself, issuing a statement saying, "My comments do not accurately reflect my views." A pretty typical politician then, by the sounds of it.
But there are two important points worth making here. First of all, Sutcliffe was right the first time: the pub industry is right to be upset. The smoking ban has driven lots of them out of business, and hiking the price of booze is not going to help. In reality, these tax increases have little to do with combating binge drinking and everything to do with raising revenue. Binge drinking is primarily a cultural problem, and not one determined by prices. So why should the vast majority of people, who consume alcohol responsibly, be punished for the sins of the few who don’t?
The second point is that Sutcliffe has fallen into a common trap. As Licensing minister, he spends lots of time talking to the drinks industry, and so then he ends up parroting their line. Notice how he said, "We, and I speak as a champion of the pub trade…" The drinks industry might be right in this case, but it shows how easily politicians get captured by vested interests once they’re put in charge of regulating something.
The government shouldn’t be championing business lobbies any more than it should be championing trade unions – it should just be leaving things alone!