How WSTA’s Miles Beale has transformed government relations with "front foot" politics

The WSTA's Miles Beale making his own conference speech in September

The WSTA's Miles Beale making his own conference speech in September

There was one notable absence at this week’s Labour party conference in Brighton.

No not Tony, Gordon, or even Ed, but the wine and spirit industry's very own Miles Beale - chief executive of the sector's main trade body, the Wine & Spirit Trade Association. 

In fact, Beale will be conspicuous by his absence at all the major party conferences this year.

Not because he does not want to be there, or has given up the political argument for the drinks industry.

Far from it.

Instead, he is focusing his and his team’s efforts on getting out on what he terms “the front foot” and looking at ways in which they can work directly and pro-actively with ministers, government departments and local MPs.

There is no need to stand around beach-side towns in conferences centres waiting to be told what to do when you can just get on and do it.

But there is a serious and important message here for those in any business involved in the buying and selling of alcoholic drinks in the UK.

We all know the spectre of tax and legislation hangs over the drinks industry like the sword of Damocles rests on the scalp of any Premier League manager.

In recent years that threat has relaxed a little with successive duty tax breaks on beer, culminating in the freeze on wine duty and actual cut in spirits duty in this year’s pre-election budget - the best result for the trade in 20 years, saving the industry some £275 million in extra tax liabilities. 


Making the case for wine

But not turning up for the party conference season is not a sign of complacency, stresses Beale.

The WSTA is, he stresses, still very firmly focused on making the case for wine in duty tax legislation which he says has been treated very much as the “poor relation” in recent budgets in contrast to the actual duty cuts given to beer, cider and spirits.

But crucially, he says, it has to do so in a way that taps in to the political arguments of the day and has genuine benefits for both the government and vitally local MPs.

For example, it is looking to champion the cause for wine by demonstrating the economic and social impact the burgeoning English wine industry is going to have on the country and, in particular, local communities.

But also demonstrate how it is being held back by the higher duty rates that are in place for sparkling wine, which account for around three quarters of all English wine production, over still.


Insider knowledge

Second guessing what issues and what campaigns ministers and government departments are likely to listen to is what sets Beale apart from many of his peers in his position.

He knows because he has been on the other side of the fence, working in a number of senior civil servant positions side by side with government ministers.

He knows how to make a case stand out in a minister’s red box and be worth reading.

Talking to Beale reminds me of my sixth form history teachers banging on about the “realpolitik” tactics of German political figures such as Otto van Bismarck in the 1850s. He is equally adept at knowing which political buttons to press. 

For example, when he stood up at the WSTA conference in September 2014 and announced it was going to campaign for a 2% cut in duty I was not alone and thinking he might be promising more than he could hope to deliver.

But when the dust settled you realised he knew the political climate was right and the door to the Chancellor was open, providing you had something to say when you went in.


Show me the evidence

The successful Call Time on Duty campaign was based on hard independent research from Ernst & Young

The successful Call Time on Duty campaign was based on hard independent research from Ernst & Young

Evidence based campaigning has been at the centre of Beale’s WSTA. Arguments based on hard independent economic data that demonstrate the value and worth of the UK drinks industry, and all its related sectors, and the benefits they bring to the Treasury’s finances. 

Its successful Call Time on Duty campaign in 2014, for example, was centred around the independent economic analysis of Ernst & Young that showed how scrapping the Duty Escalator would create 6,00 jobs and generate an extra £230 million for the Treasury.   

Facts that make such economic sense it is in the government's interests to sit up and take notice.

Beale marked this change in the relationship the drinks industry now has with the government in his WSTA conference speech last month.

"From an industry under threat, we are now an industry on the rise: recognised and respected by government - not only for its contribution to the economy, but also for being an industry that takes its responsibilities seriously, and with a demonstrable record of effective self-regulation and meaningful voluntary action. Indeed, one that has set the gold standard in Europe," he said.

The next phase of the WSTA campaign is going to be fascinating and demonstrates how far the drinks industry has come in the eight years I have been writing about it.

The political line in the sand has moved a good few yards in the industry’s favour.

Drinking levels are down, particularly so amongst younger drinkers.

The responsibility message has become so omnipresent on drinks packaging, advertising, billboards and sporting arenas, like the current Rugby World Cup,  that is embedded in the country's popular culture. 

The new political agenda

Now Beale believes the time is right to broaden the drinks industry’s message away from predominantly campaigning just for lower duty tax rates. A lobbying strategy that, he says, demonstrates "industry action can achieve more, faster and at less cost" than government intervention.   

A strategy that also taps in to the thinking and motivations of a Conservative government, driven by a public mandate to deliver its own political philosophies.

For example, job creation, the living wage and zero hour contracts have become symbols of the current regime. Policies that have major implications on industries directly related to the selling of alcohol – the retail and hospitality sectors.

The WSTA, says Beale, is focused on delivering initiatives and campaigns designed to work with and actually help the politicians that for years have been hell bent on attacking and in some cases destroying the drinks industry. 

A campaign centred around drilling home key economic facts including: 

* the wine and spirits industry is worth £40 billion

* its serves 26 million consumers

* it supports 600,000 jobs

* pays £15.5 billion a year in tax

* and is a significant part of what is now the UK's largest export sector - food and drink. 

Big hospitality

The WSTA is looking to champion the economic impact the hospitality sector is having on the country

The WSTA is looking to champion the economic impact the hospitality sector is having on the country

It is why the WSTA is  looking to specifically champion the economic merits of the hospitality sector that relies on the health of the drinks industry for its own growth and contributes an estimated £100 million to the UK economy.

Beale explains: “The hospitality industry is the fourth largest employment sector in the country and is due to grow 3% year-on-year for the next five years.”

What’s more it employs some 4.4 million people around a third of which are under 25s and almost half are under 30.  

A buoyant hospitality sector is also helping to drive the growth in casual dining and tourism.

After all which MP would not like their town or city constituency benefit from the new investment and employment opportunities the arrival of big high street dining chains can bring, asks Beale.

A drinks industry at the centre of a virtuous circle of new investment, job creation, tourism, entrepreneurship and local business opportunities.

It is a message Beale and the WSTA are also taking to every new MP in Parliament.  It is vital, he stresses, “that first interaction” gives those MPs an understanding of the work the drinks industry is doing. It is, for example, providing  each new MP with a copy of its new report: “Wine and spirits in the UK: A socially responsible industry”. 

It does what it says on the tin and explains the huge steps the drinks industry has taken around CSR and sustainability and how it is helping to “create jobs for today and tomorrow," says Beale.

He is adamant the industry would not have had the success it has had on duty, if it was not backed up by such a "comprehensive record on corporate social responsibility".

Forever England

   Former MP Vince Cable on a visit to the Rathfinny wine estate with Mark and Sarah Driver 


Former MP Vince Cable on a visit to the Rathfinny wine estate with Mark and Sarah Driver 

The economic argument also plays nicely with the growth of the English wine industry and the WSTA’s hope it can convince the government to help with wine tax legislation in future budgets.

The scale and potential of the English wine industry may be well known in the drinks trade, but it is one that MPs are being increasingly lobbied about.

The WSTA was able, for example, to demonstrate recently the economic and social impact the English wine industry is having on local communities by taking four local MPs to visit the highly impressive 160 hectare Rathfinny wine estate in Sussex.

An estate that is set to bottle up to one million bottles of English sparkling wines by 2020. But crucially a business that will soon be employing up to 70 people rather than the single farmer that looked after the land before it was turned in to a vineyard and winery.

“They were able to see the scale and the future economic potential for themselves,” says Beale.

“We are no longer seen as an industry to attack, but an industry that is creating jobs and is good for economic growth,” he explains.

Who better to encapsulate that than Mark Driver, owner of Rathfinny, who made his money as a hedge fund manager in the City and is now re-investing in the local community.

International rescue

5, 4, 3, 2, 1...the WSTA is GO!

5, 4, 3, 2, 1...the WSTA is GO!


The WSTA is also looking to demonstrate the size and potential of the UK drinks industry by helping the government in its bid to drive growth and investment overseas.

It is even working with DEFRA and the UKTI to host a series of joint receptions in British Embassies around the world to promote the growth in British spirits and British gin in particular.

We now have a situation where the government is willing to stop hitting the drinks industry with duty increases, and wants to help sell its products in joint events around the world.

The first DEFRA/ UKTI / WSTA event was held in Brussels in July with further ones scheduled to take part in the likes of Berlin, New York and Los Angeles in due course.

Events that put UK drinks businesses, both big and small, face to face with potential distributors in new markets around the world.

It is also talking with DEFRA Secretary, Lizz Truss, about setting up a London Gin Trail and Vineyard Trail in the UK on similar grounds to the Whisky Trail in Scotland to help put the spotlight on local producers.

Truss has already been on a WSTA tour of the Beefeater and Sipsmiths distilleries to see for herself the potential they have in helping UK exports. The visit not only resulted in impressive national newspaper coverage but even prompted the government to issue its own glowing news story of the work it is doing to help the UK gin and drinks industry. 

Miles Beale and DEFRA's Lizz Truss share a joke on her recent visit of the Beefeater and Sipsmiths gin distilleries 

Miles Beale and DEFRA's Lizz Truss share a joke on her recent visit of the Beefeater and Sipsmiths gin distilleries 

Commercially driven recruitment drive

Such initiatives are a win, win for the WSTA that relies on the support of existing and new members for its survival.

It is no secret that the WSTA is on an ambitious recruitment drive, most publicly with the sector’s largest companies that really should no better than to have signed up already.

But it also hopes its more economic, commercially driven focus, with ventures that potentially help members grow their businesses, will help it be seen in a different light than simply a tax lobbying organisation.

Or as Beale says: “It is giving members a direct commercial benefit for joining.”

New era of political relations

All of which makes you think we are potentially entering a new era for the drinks industry. One where its lobbying and political actions are in step with the economic aspirations of the government. Particularly when it comes to overseas investment. 

As Beale says: "It has been a long time since we have had a government department prepared to openly back the great British drinks industry." 

Yes, the industry might feel it has earned the right to be "championed" in this way, but it cannot afford to rest on its laurels. This is simply the start, says Beale.  

As he told his conference last month: "Let’s not take our foot off the gas. There can be no room for complacency here. Commit to responsibility and we will earn committed support from government."

He was in equally inspiring form when we met up this week.

His final message to the trade:  “Let’s get out there and try new things rather than sit back and wait to be whacked over the head.”  

In other words it's time to get on Beale’s “front foot” and let's make things happen.