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Thursday, 14 January 2010

CAMRA and the neo-prohibitionists

A few of you have asked me where CAMRA is in the whole battle against the neo-prohibitionists, and whether they have issued any response to the HSC report.

So yesterday - after receiving a press release entitled 'Pub Goers Set to Benefit from Abolition of Land Agreements Exclusion Order' - I asked CAMRA's press officer the question - had they issued any response to the HSC report or were they planning to?

CAMRA confirmed that they have not issued a press release, but have released the following quote to the media:

Iain Loe, CAMRA research manager, said "CAMRA welcomes the call by the Committee for the introduction of a minimum price per alcohol unit which will benefit community pubs by curbing the below cost selling of alcohol by supermarkets which can fuel pre-loading. We also welcome their suggestion that the Government should introduce a reduced rate of duty on beers below 2.8%."

So there you have it. CAMRA supports minimum pricing - which we already knew - and has nothing to say about the rest of the report.

I'm not just going to indulge in knee-jerk CAMRA-bashing here. I'll be asking CAMRA why they are not commenting more widely.

But in the meantime, what do you think? Is it CAMRA's job to argue back against the HSC? Should they do so given that they claim to represent the interests of beer drinkers? Or is it too political? Is it outside their remit?

You can understand to an extent why drinks manufacturers are not arguing back - they would be hung out to dry by the media, treated (unfairly) with the same contempt as the cigarette companies who tried to argue that the link between smoking and lung cancer wasn't proven.

But who SHOULD be fighting back? Someone has to. Surely it's not just down to one or two independent journos and bloggers...

What do you think?


Woolpack Dave said...

I don't know about the CAMRA position - their stance on minimum pricing is based on the fact that it will probably generally help pubs.

Their view is that pubs are a safe place to drink - it is the heavy discounting in supermarkets that are causing the alcohol "problem" and the decline of pubs. I'm not sure that they are completely wrong on that either. I don't agree with minimum pricing myself, but it would help the pub industry.

Should CAMRA do more? I don't know. Should somebody other than independent journalists and bloggers? Perhaps, but if we got off our arses and did something a little more proactive we could make a difference. - Perhaps the pen is mightier than the sword and all that, but we need a publicity stunt to start getting our (your) words read.

Alan said...

CAMRA and good brewers and good beer fans should all participate in social responsibility messaging to both brand themselves collectively as distinct from macro-brewers and also to support the social good. It is all very fine to poke holes in reports but it does not make for proving that there are no social ills related to misuse of alcohol.

Phil Mellows said...

The concerted foregrounding of minimum unit pricing by the health lobby is, I believe, a deliberate and cynical attempt to divide the drinks industry - and deter groups like Camra from criticising the wider, more damaging, proposals that are part of the same package.

junklight said...

The people who should be fighting back are anyone with an ounce of interest in truth over spin.

This is only one report from the government. As we have seen from the Iraq inquiry and from the David Nutt resignation - the government (and opposition) see evidence based thinking as one option amongst many (the other options including the popular "make it up as you see fit"). The media seem increasingly in on this too - research is too costly for them and spreading fear and panic presumably sells lots of papers (I assume that is why they are full of it)

We live in a culture were "understanding things" is looked down on by large parts of our society as well which does not help us - but is certainly working in the governments and medias favour.

As for why CAMARA are not shouting about this - well perhaps I've been indoctrinated too much by Mr Pickthall - but they strike me as a group who have their own cosy blinkered agenda and don't really want to leave the nice comfortable groove in which they travel.

Dave above is right - we need to find ways of getting a wider audience than other people who already know we are being lied to left , right and centre by a bunch of people who rely on us not reading original research or thinking for ourselves.

David Strange said...

As the mouth piece of many beer lovers, CAMRA should be standing against those who try to demonise drinkers. They can be very effective at getting messages out in the press, so would be an ideal agent for exposing the duplicity in neo-prohibitionist propaganda. Sure, they should support measures that benefit pubs (and I am not convinced minimum pricing would do that), but they should also stand against organisations which come out with drivel like "there is no safe limit for drinking".

junklight said...

To Alan,

that though is the kind of thinking that informs most government policy at the moment.

Petes articles show that the correlation between alcohol consumption and problems for society is poor and in fact his last article showed that the correlation between treating alcohol consumption as a problem and something to be stamped out is high and societal problems is high

But your line of thinking leads to a situation that rules out proper solutions:

Q. Does substance X sometimes cause problems?
A. Well yes but...
Q. So substance X causes problems and we must stop people using it
A. but....

It has informed drugs policy (which blatantly does not work), it currently being used to inform drinking policy - and it will inevitably lead to things like GPS speed limiters in cars. All because in the ultra simplistic scheme of things - something is either Good or Bad - if its Bad you have to stop people doing it.

The reality is that the picture is complex - for large numbers of people alcohol is not a problem, for some sections of society it is - but again not in a black and white way, if you remove drink from the picture there will still be problems in those parts of society.

Cooking Lager said...

The CAMRA logic is as far as I can ascertain about 2 things. Firstly they think that putting the price of a 40p can of lout up to a quid will encourage people to walk into a pub for a £3 pint. Secondly they feel they have to be on the side of responsible drinking what with them encouraging the drinking of pongy ale.
A significant element of on trade business is the real ale they promote but they will have noticed that the real ale off trade is so small as to be insignificant. Off trade drinkers tend to have a higher number of wine and spirit drinkers, whereas in the on trade beer dominates. Also beer sales in the off trade whether cheap or premium do not tend to be secondary conditioned. Among the premium ales, most are brewery and not bottled conditioned.
If the UK followed the US in terms of the size of the on trade relative to off, most of the pub trade would disappear and cask ale would be an even smaller niche than it is, and gets them all of a quiver.
So CAMRA are desperate to reverse the long term trend to the off trade and think minimum pricing will help.
Where they are wrong is that minimum pricing will not put an extra pound in the pocket of a drinker to spend in pubs and could very well have the effect of reducing the discretionary spend of many consumers. Also by conceding the price argument as the cause of social and health problems rather than culture, they concede the argument in both on and off trade.
When price rises in off trade alcohol fail to solve any of the problems of early hour’s fights in town centres, the next step is on trade prices and the argument is already lost.
CAMRA ought to wake up, smell the coffee.

John Porter said...

The main problem is the same one that the anti-smoking lobby exploited so effectively - a divided opposition.
There isn't a single 'pro-alcohol' or even 'pro-beer' voice. The interests of retailers, brewers, pub owners, individual licensees and beer drinkers are different, even if they overlap at the point where this nonsense needs to be challenged. If CAMRA says something different to SIBA, which says something diffeerent to the BRC, the national media doesn't know who to speak to to counter the endless stream of spurious anti-drinking surveys and, crucially, politicans don't know who get around the table with to talk about it.
It needs a single, effective PR and lobbying voice to combat this, but experience suggests the plethora of vested interests that make up the drinks industry won't be able put their differences aside to do that. Scary times.

Alan said...

Having been both a family and criminal lawyer in my past, I have an experience that is not based on UK politics but the experience of validating that the approach that "liquor doesn't kill, people do" is naive. I fully support what Pete is doing in this research and it is important criticism. I just believe it does not go far enough and implicitly conveys an "I'm alright Jack" approach to the problem unless the question of what is the real issue with over drinking in relation to health and public safety is not also addressed. Pretending that there may not be any problem is both silly and a missed opportunity for people who love good beer.

StringersBeer said...

"the drinks industry" is divided. Good. Producers of the high quality hand-crafted stuff and proprietors of safe drinking establishments shouldn't be siding with producers/purveyors of cut-price solvents for consumption in bus-shelters.

We may be expecting too much from CAMRA, it's a pretty broad church / big dinosaur - they've got an AGM coming up where the arse brain may get a chance to talk it out with the head ganglion.

Mark said...

We need a single voice which supports beer in general and not just a specific off-shoot. CAMRA is specifically real ale so their interests are skewed.

I think a brewers association could be the answer. If they were united in a stance then it would go some way to helping the situation. But as we don't have this so all eyes are turning to CAMRA as the 'voice' of beer, but this is like asking the BNP to speak about equality and diversity (sort of...). Sadly they are all we have with a big enough voice and audience.

The trouble with putting money up on cheap tins is that the mega breweries will then need to push pub prices up, right? It's lose-lose.

Out of interest... would the minimum price per unit affect the prices of beer in somewhere like Wetherspoons?

Cooking Lager said...

To answer Marks question there are less than 2 units in a 99p pint of spoons bitter (3.7%), therefore a 50p per unit minimum price would not push it up.

To comment on Marks point, a producer led lobby will never represent the interests of consumers. The history of the beer market in the UK is one of stitching up us punters.

CAMRA are at least notionally a consumer pressure group, the fault line is that they are a narrow group of consumers that do not see the prohibition threat and see the enemy as those that drink grog that doesn't meet their own narrow criteria.

John Porter said...

Slightly off-piste, but in response to Mark's question about 'Spoons, a minimum price would hit their promotions, depending where the minimum was set. At a mimimum 50p a unit, that 99p pint of Ruddles currently on offer (4.7 ABV so 2.6 units) would have to be sold at about £1.30. At a 40p a unit mimimum, they'd probably get away with the 99p price point.

Eddie said...

Tim Martin argued that the pub industry ought not to blame the supermarkets at all, rather adopt a broad defence of alcohol as a whole. I agree wholeheartedly: this isn't a chance to promote the on-trade at the expense of the off, or the micro at the expense of the macro, that's playing into the hands of the neo-pros. Pete's got the right idea and CAMRA and SIBA and the BBPA and the SWA, et al, need to recognise it.

John Porter said...

Sorry, Cooking's right and I'm wrong, because JDW is selling Rudles Best (3.7%) not Ruddles County (4.7%). Apologies for further muddying already dark waters.

Rob Nicholson said...

Just to dig out some information from CAMRA's "Strategic Campaigning Framework


CAMRA’s vision is one of a vibrant UK brewing and pubs industry where consumers increasingly appreciate and have easy access to quality, distinctive and good value real ales in well-run and viable community pubs and in the off-trade.


CAMRA’s mission is to act as the champion of the UK consumer in relation to the drinks industry.

Statement of Aims

1. Campaign for greater appreciation of traditional beers, ciders and perries and the public house as part of national heritage and

2. Support the public house as a focus of community life

3. Promote quality, choice and value for money

4. Protect and improve consumer rights

Only #1 is specifically about real ale so there's an awful lot that CAMRA *should* be doing in the other areas.

Curmudgeon said...

It is a complete myth that minimum pricing will benefit pubs, as under any conceivable regime alcohol in pubs would still be more expensive. It won't give people a single extra penny to spend in pubs and indeed could lead to them proportionately spending less in pubs if their total drinks budget is fixed.

If CAMRA is qualified to express support for minimum pricing - against the wishes of many of its members - then it is certainly qualified to address the wider issues in the HSC report.

By making common cause with the anti-drink lobby in search of a short-term and indeed illusory advantage CAMRA is losing all credibility.

Julie HG said...

My point of view is that of a US (California) craft beer drinker and home brewer watching this debate with interest from the outside in. Take it as you will.

With regards to CAMRA, do you really think that they are ready to become the flag bearer for drinking? Not beer drinking, or drinking quality beer, but drinking as a whole. Because if they start taking up the cry against these reports, that's what they will become. Which then opens them up to being the target as 'that evil organization promoting alcoholism' to anyone who cares to take a pot shot.

I can't help but draw a correlation to the NRA (National Rifle Assn) here in the US. Their primary charter is to protect the 2nd amendment (the right to bear arms), but also to promote gun safety and responsible gun usage. However, because they've taken on the anti-gun lobby as a whole, they're branded by as defending a criminals right to buy automatic weapons to use in crime. Members of the NRA call up images of gun-toting rednecks bent on shooting anything that moves. Is it fair? Hardly, but it's what has happened over time.

At the moment, from my cozy seat far, far away, CAMRA enjoys a very positive image, encouraging the production and enjoyment of high quality ales and craft beers. I personally don't think that they really should jeopardize their agenda and position by trying to publicly take on a broader anti-prohibition stance.

Curmudgeon said...

We shouldn't be too sentimental about pubs. Yes, well-run pubs are all the things you say, and they're the kind of pubs all of us tend to drink in. But the fact remains that many town-centre premises are not well-run and actively encourage irresponsible drinking. It is also the case that the vast majority of alcohol-related disorder is associated with drinking on licensed premises.

A guy may steadily wreck his liver by drinking six cans of Stella every night at home, but he's not out there causing trouble on the streets.

Curmudgeon said...

At the moment, from my cozy seat far, far away, CAMRA enjoys a very positive image, encouraging the production and enjoyment of high quality ales and craft beers. I personally don't think that they really should jeopardize their agenda and position by trying to publicly take on a broader anti-prohibition stance.

The problem is that over the years CAMRA has got itself involved in plenty of issues in the wider political arena - for example the notorious Beer Orders, supporting the liberalisation of licensing laws, and the current campaign against the pub companies.

Given this, they can't claim that an anti-prohibitionist campaign is ultra vires.

If they won't stand up against the neo-Prohibitionists, then I would prefer it if they concentrated on championing good beer and good pubs and abandoned all the wider political stuff - as, indeed, my local branch already effectively does.

Stono said...

Its possible CAMRA simply believes the debate on the report has already been lost. Because the weight of public opinion/mass media seems broadly supportive of the reports conclusions, regardless of Pete's excellent debunking work, and so its attempting to strike as much of a positive, conciliatory note so as to hopefully ensure a greater say in the direction and eventual scope of legislation that is undoubtedly going to be drawn up as a response.

and certainly I dont think any organisation would want to martyr itself infront of the very same tabloids who continually push the BoozeBritain myths, to fight a battle if it didnt think it could win.

Rob Nicholson said...

It might be worth pointing out the structure of CAMRA to give some background to the "Should CAMRA do XYZ" comments. There is a small group of ~15 paid staff based at St. Albans. Then there is the national executive (NE), a group of annually elected representative who are unpaid volunteers. Then there are the 200 branches who are operated typically by a small group (~10) active members, also volunteers. Then there's the other 98,000 members who don't actively get involved in CAMRA except through their very welcome subscription and patronage of pubs & beer.

Aside from some key staff (such as Mike Benner) at HQ, it is the NE that directs most of the CAMRA policy on an immediate day to day basis. These guys are volunteers and are not on hand 24/7 to respond to every single issue as it arises immediately. They may feel that they need input and comments from the very loosely connected branch structure.

Therefore, like a oil tanker, it sometimes takes CAMRA a lot time to discuss and therefore decide on a subject. Sometimes, the subject has long passed it's expiry date. So what naturally happens is that HQ/NE have to respond faster when they can but the response they come up with is not necessarily the grass roots feeling of the 2,000 active members.

This isn't an excuse for a lack of response on this, just an explanation of how things work.

It is equally not to say that personally I don't think the communication channels can't be improved but that's a separate discussion.

Cheers, Rob.

Cooking Lager said...

One opinion I would like Curmudgeon or other CAMRA members to express is the degree to which CAMRA is representative of its members and I think only a member can answer that question. I gather from reading his blog that CAMRA is very much a social club at a branch level but reading the CAMRA website I gather the organisation is fairly democratic with members having a direct say on policy. More so, at any rate, than any political party where its members are largely cheerleaders and its conference a meaningless TV spectacle. I gather CAMRA have an AGM where any member can attend and propose new policy or amend existing policy. With that in mind I have to assume that CAMRA policy is representative of its members and most members are in favour of what its doing. The perspective of a member would be interesting.

Curmudgeon said...

I would say that CAMRA - like other similar organisations - is representative of its activists rather than its members as a whole. Only a minority of members ever attend any events and even fewer actually make it to the AGM.

Elections to the NE are often uncontested and it gives the impression of being a bit of a mutual backscratching society.

One significant democratic deficit is that policy issues are decided purely by the votes of those who attend the AGM - there are no postal ballots as held by, say, the National Trust.

Rob Nicholson said...

@Cooking Lager: I think the honest answer to that is "We don't know". I do know that there is not a wholescale blanket acceptance of the project (beer tie) but I personally think that's because we don't fully understand that details of the subject.

Coming back to the main thrust of this thread, it may equally come as a surprise to some CAMRA members that CAMRA isn't just about real ale anymore.

Rob Nicholson said...

@Curmudgeon: Yes, I agree with you. It's time for CAMRA to embrace a bit more technology and really get behind the discussion forums and online voting. Whether policy can then be handled more rapidly (new policy, change policy) and by a wider membership base is debatable. These discussions could just be to get the grass roots feedback. I'm not a complete fan of design by committee.

David said...

CAMARA should employ you as a consultant mate, and use some of their resources to give you a gig researching and giving them material for their responses. Based on what you have said it would irk some of them, but it could be seen as a case of keeping your friends close etc.

Rob Nicholson said...

>CAMARA should employ you as a consultant mate

That's not a completely unreasonable suggestion.

Curmudgeon said...

I've done a new blog post entitled At the sign of the Ostrich which looks at the reasons why CAMRA isn't more vocal in opposing the neo-Prohibitionists. There's also a poll on whether it should be.