Stephen Daisley

Lee Anderson is wrong about food banks

Lee Anderson is wrong about food banks
Lee Anderson giving his speech on food banks (photo: Parliamentlive.tv)
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Who says the Tories don’t understand the cost-of-living crisis? So far obliviousness to the desperate circumstances of low-income (and not so low-income) families has been in evidence on the posho wing of the Conservative party.

There was Rishi Sunak who said it would be ‘silly’ to provide more help with energy bills right now and better to wait and see what things looked like in the autumn. Not to mention environment secretary George Eustice who, offering some belt-tightening tips to struggling Brits, suggested ‘going for some of the value brands rather than own-branded products’ as a way to ‘contain and manage their household budget’. Now Lee Anderson, an ex-miner elected Tory MP for Ashfield in 2019, has proved you don’t need to have been born with a silver spoon in your mouth to fit your foot in there too.

During a Commons debate on the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday, the former Labour councillor told MPs:

‘There is not this massive use for food banks in this country. We have generation after generation who cannot cook properly — they cannot cook a meal from scratch — and they cannot budget.’

Anderson invited aghast opposition MPs to visit ‘a real food bank’ in his constituency, where receipt of food parcels requires those in need ‘to register for a budgeting course and a cooking course’. He’s not wrong about the value of teaching good home economics but he is wrong in suggesting its absence explains away food poverty in Britain. Anderson’s pronouncement recalled an earlier admonition to the poor by Norman Tebbit: get on your bike and look for a cookery class.

There is a generous reading of his remarks in which they express a pragmatic, tough-minded determination to help the worst off to help themselves. Since Anderson belongs to a government that snatched back £20 a week from Universal Credit (UC) claimants, the tough-minded pragmatism might be better directed at his own front bench. It takes some chutzpah to impoverish people then blame their situation on a lack of culinary nous. Perhaps instead of the UC uplift, the Chancellor should have bought families on benefits a copy of Ottolenghi’s latest book.

The SNP’s Joanna Cherry, who followed Anderson in the debate, pointed out that: 

‘All of us have food banks in our constituency and we do not need to visit his, because we are perfectly well aware of the requirement for them. They are required not because people do not know how to cook, but because we have poverty in this country on a scale that should shame his government.’

A sound, reasoned rebuff of Anderson’s worldview from the centre-left. This sort of bootstraps Thatcherism, gruffly dispensing with fashionable sociological cant to ‘tell it like it is’, has always offended liberal sensibilities but it is no less at odds with the holistic view of human nature that ought to animate conservative philosophy. Those among us most materially lacking are no lesser morally than the rest and their financial sufferings cannot be dismissed as mere ignorance or fecklessness. Just as the austerity policy did before it, the cost-of-living crisis is underlining that the Tory party’s economic instincts remain stuck in the 1980s and inured to the cruelty, indignity and wasting of human potential this has led to.

Instead of seeing wealth creation and fiscal prudence as necessities for the achievement of a virtuous society, the Tories regard attracting and retaining capital and government-by-balance-sheet as virtues in themselves. A conservative is not an accountant with a vague awareness of societal bonds. A conservative is a moralist who understands that meeting material needs, promoting universal dignity and giving people from all walks the opportunity to live the good life is morally worthwhile and imperative to the ordered society a conservative wishes to see.

It is also pragmatic, common sense politics, something else conservatism likes to think itself well acquainted with. As Peel put it in the context of the Corn Laws, ‘when the working classes feel convinced that their wages do not rise with the price of food, the worst ground on which we can fight the battle of true conservatism is food’. Lee Anderson’s answer to Peel seems to be that when food prices rise and wages fail to rise with them, the battle for true conservatism is best fought by telling people to learn how to boil an egg. That this is philosophically unconservative will be the least of its sins in the eyes of wiser, cannier Conservative MPs. It is another signal to the public, whether they rely on food banks or are struggling in the middle, that the Conservative party hasn’t a clue about how bad things are getting out there.

Written byStephen Daisley

Stephen Daisley is a Spectator regular and a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail

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