From Pontypool to Pauillac

Christopher Pincher takes us through the Labour Party’s beverages of choice

On Wine

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

“The people’s flag is deepest red”— so declares the ancient anthem of socialism, collectivism and trades unionism. It is belted out at Labour Party conferences, with clenched fists raised aloft, by sundry parliamentary leaders in exquisite hand-made suits, wily nabobs of the NEC, hard-faced union paymasters and by both militant and moderate rank and file as they ring down the curtain on a week of composite motions and comradely chicanery by the sea.

Each autumn the crimson tide recedes from Blackpool or Brighton, leaving behind it a mass of bottles strewn on the beaches and corks bobbing in the surf. But bottles of a certain size and shape: the 75cl variety. Because it is Bordeaux not brown ale that is, and always has been, in the bloodstream of the Labour elite. And in a way that is as it should be. For the brothers and sisters love their reds.

Roy Jenkins, scion of the Labour family, whose journey from Pontypool to Pauillac detoured through all the best chateaux, is probably their most famous son of the terroir. His love of Lafite was legendary — as indeed is its price, with the average bottle now retailing at around £650.

Because it is Bordeaux not brown ale that is, and always has been, in the bloodstream of the Labour elite

Jenkins’s great party rival, and leader, Harold Wilson was much less an oenophile: he preferred the burnt version — vintage brandy — but his tastes were not cheap. Whether their political sister, Barbara Castle, had them both in mind when she launched the police breathalyser in 1967 is not known to history. But she almost certainly had one eye on George Brown, deputy party leader and indefatigable partygoer, who had both hands on the wheel at the Foreign Office when he would never have been allowed behind the wheel of a car.

Of course, at the heart of every red, they say, lurks a white bursting to bust out. Tony Blair, whom most reds always suspected was not really red at all, preferred to serve expensive English white wine such as Chapel Down to his Chequers guests. Mrs Blair is reported to like Tokaji. The Blairs’ little sins surprise no one.

Yet when the white happens also to have bubbles, the soul of even the most zealous socialist can be suborned. Champagne brought out the best in Crosland and Bevan, the worst in Driberg, and the competitive spirit in Sunderland’s Bill Etherington, who bravely battled his way through salvers of the stuff whilst representing Britain at the Council of Europe. Bollinger and bolshevism go together like rhubarb and custard.

Time will yet tell us Keir Starmer’s favourite tipple. Is he a red, is he a white, or does he prefer cocktails? Sir Keir gave us a tantalising taster a couple of years ago by declaring his affection for Kentish Town’s The Pineapple, a chi-chi boozer boasting Thai food, Boho bitter and a conservatory. Very woke; very North London. But more tomato juice than martyred dead. Not the kind of place to sing about a scarlet banner, nor order a brown ale.

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