Column One: A tall skinny new Labour latte to go, please

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DOUBLE TALL, skinny no foam decaf latte with just a hint of hazelnut: the wonder, of course, is that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - the Frasier and Niles Crane of New Labour- had never been seen together in a Starbucks shop until yesterday.

After all, here are two organisations that have applied the wonders of late second millennium marketing to a couple of old and simple things - coffee and the Labour Party - and made them both beguiling, even indispensable, without actually changing very much.

Tony and Gordon are after more terms than you'll find in Italian on a blackboard in Starbucks; for his part, Howard Schultz, chairman and chief executive of the American coffee shop chain, gave us this recently: "We have 2,520 stores worldwide serving 10 million customers a week. I notice McDonald's has just said it now has 25,000 shops worldwide. That's where I want to be with Starbucks". Wow, as they say in Downing Street.

So there they were, yesterday, Tony and Gordon, taking a break from issuing comforting words over the air on radio (the spin-doctors Crane?) down at Starbucks in London's Villiers Street (number 78 of the 300 projected for the UK by 2003), sipping tall Americanos with milk (although, for one heady moment, it seemed as if Gordon had plumped instead for a very small espresso). There were no reports of him wiping his chair with a handkerchief before sitting down.

Tony, being Tony, went behind the counter and prepared a coffee. "I used to do this when I was a barman in Paris," he said. That must have been before he was sacked for dropping a tray laden with brimming glasses of champagne and went off to another Bar. (Note for historians and potential future employers: he claims he was tripped).

Gordon, being Gordon, explained why the shop had been chosen: "Every employee here gets the chance to have shares, every employee is taken seriously as part of the partnership, and I want share ownership to spread right across British companies and British industry". Ken Livingstone is thought to be pushing for inclusion of the second clause in the party constitution.

Splendid, all the same. And well done to Starbucks, a shining percolator of the way forward from what Gordon condemned ringingly on Tuesday as "the sterile, century-long struggle between fairness and enterprise."

Visit the company website and you will read about the promotion of environmentally sound methods of coffee growing, and all manner of innovative benefits and philanthropic efforts, from sponsorship of literacy programmes to a joint partnership with the former basketball star Magic Johnson "to develop Starbucks Coffee locations in under-served, inner-city urban US neighbourhoods".

Why, then, is there less than universal acclamation for Mr Schultz's dreams? Well, a lot of it, obviously, is part of the same curmudgeonliness that quibbles with the visions of Mr Blair and Mr Brown; and from the same sort of blinkered people who prefer a quick cup of coffee rather than a multiple-choice lifestyle decision, and are embarrassed about ordering in Italian soundbites from members of staff called "baristas".

It's probably part of the same petty impulse that led Jackie Mason to complain that Starbucks' stools are unfair to short Jews, and prompted Dr Evil, of Austin Powers fame, to hatch his world domination quest from Starbucks' HQ.

Those wishing to search deeper and seek out further parallels with New Labour should recall that Starbucks takes its name from the doomed chief mate of the equally doomed Captain Ahab in Melville's Moby Dick, that classic exploration of "the everlasting elusiveness of truth".

Captain Ahab, you will remember, thought "all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks"; and one critic has written that the catastrophic end of the hunt for the great white whale suggests that Melville believed the world was not ready for "a collaborative, phenomenological vision". Thank you, Dr Crane. More tea, Vicar?

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