Isabel Hardman

The Tories’ food poverty problem

The Tories' food poverty problem
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Marcus Rashford was just 12 when David Cameron took the Conservatives into government, a fact that makes the bones of most Westminster inhabitants creak. In the ensuing decade, he has learned to be not only a footballer of international renown, but also a measured and effective political campaigner. The Tories, on the other hand, appear to have learned nothing from ten years of dealing with the topic he campaigns on.

Rashford’s work on food poverty is unusual, not just because unlike many in his professional field who adopt causes, he has taken a great deal of time to understand it in a way that goes far beyond his personal experience. It is even more unusual in Westminster because he conducts his campaigns without any obvious partisanship and with a gentleness that appears strangely incongruous in today’s political culture.

That political culture was on show in a particularly ugly way yesterday when the Commons debated an opposition day motion from the Labour party calling for the government to carry on funding free school meals in the holidays until Easter 2021.

Opposition day debates are not binding on the government, but they are useful devices by which Labour and other parties can force the government to take a position on an issue in a vote. The position the government takes is almost inevitably to oppose the motion, partly because it is generally worded in such a way as to make it politically very difficult to support, and partly because the way party ego works means it is rare for ministers to concede that the opposition can ever be right about anything, even to the point of rejecting amendments that correct spelling mistakes in legislation. The result of the vote means opposition MPs can then say that ‘the government doesn’t want to feed hungry children’ and so on.

Yesterday’s motion was reasonably-worded, so ministers tried to amend it with a lengthy addition. It originally read:

That this House calls on the government to continue directly funding provision of free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021 to prevent over a million children going hungry during this crisis.

And Gavin Williamson moved an amendment which meant it would have read:

That this House notes that schools are now fully operational following the Covid-19 outbreak, and will continue to offer free school meals in term time; welcomes the substantial support provided by the government to children worth £550 million annually; further welcomes that this support has been bolstered by almost £53 billion worth of income protection schemes, and £9.3 billion of additional welfare payments; notes that eligible families have also been supported throughout lockdown through the receipt of meal vouchers worth £380 million while schools were partially closed, alongside the holiday activities and food fund; and further supports the government in its ongoing activities to help the most vulnerable children in society.

The way some Tory MPs chose to reinforce Williamson's argument made them seem like caricatures. There is a certain type of governing party backbencher (this applied under Labour governments too, but you have to have a reasonably long memory to recall that these days) who will happily say whatever the whips ask them to, even if it makes them sound a bit absurd. 

A number of those certain types were out in force yesterday afternoon. Brendan Clarke-Smith made the truly ludicrous assertion that 'I do not believe in nationalising children', before calling for 'less celebrity virtue-signally on Twitter by proxy and more action to tackle the real causes of child poverty'. A number of others were very keen to point out that Rashford's own hunger as a child happened under a Labour government, conveniently forgetting that the 22-year-old striker spent his adolescence under the Conservatives.

Of course, there were some thoughtful Conservative voices who made their case well. Danny Kruger, who spent a great deal of his time before entering parliament thinking deeply about how society works, pointed out that charities 'are able to be much more targeted, precise, sensitive and generous than a blanket state system'. Miriam Cates told the Chamber that 'work isn't always the route out of poverty that it should be' — something some Conservatives fail to acknowledge — and advocated a 'very radical relational community approach to tackling poverty'.

But the overall tenor of the session — which followed another unpleasant opposition day debate in which Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner called Tory Chris Clarkson 'scum' — showed that the Conservatives have not, despite a decade of being confronted with it, worked out how to talk about food poverty.

Under David Cameron, the problem manifested itself in food banks, which were also set up under a Labour government but saw an explosion in demand under the coalition. Initially, the Tories tried to pretend that these charitable sources of emergency food help didn't exist and weren't a widespread issue. Then they tried to brush them off with references to the Big Society. They even tried to shunt the issue between government departments, none of which wanted to be responsible for something that was becoming politically toxic. The confusion gave Labour ample space to colonise the issue, painting the very existence of community charities which seek to help people as a scandal. 

This is an avoidable political failure from a party that does, presumably, have a worldview that allows it to explain both the existence of food poverty in a developed country and how to deal with it. Voices like Kruger's and Cates are drowned out by the 'nationalising children' brigade who, far from helping their party deal better with an increasingly politicised issue, are scoring own goals.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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