Hunger for change. The messed-up debate about free school meals

Hunger for change. The messed-up debate about free school meals

In the midst of this pandemic, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts. A few of us, led by Marcus Rashford, are endeavouring to provide the poor with some meat and drink.

The government has decided for now to set its face against helping and has instead chosen to play the part of Scrooge. This has not played particularly well in the media. Outfits as small as one man fruit and veg stalls to companies as large as McDonald’s have taken their own initiative, leaving the government looking not just mean but also out of step with public opinion.

There are principled arguments for not providing free school meals outside term-time. The government has completely failed to make them. Instead, a series of Conservative MPs have queued up to make complete asses of themselves, from Selaine Saxby, who mused that businesses that could afford to give away food should not seek further government support, to Ben Bradley, who claimed that free school meal vouchers in the summer effectively gave cash to crack dens and brothels, to Mark Jenkinson, who also claimed that free meals for children resulted in that food being sold for drugs or alcohol. (They, and several more of their colleagues, then squawked at the opprobrium heaped on them, claiming that they had been unjustly abused. My heart bleeds for them.)

As a result, the Conservatives have managed to look clueless and heartless at the same time. Only their most fervent supporters are going to accept that drug dealers are operating Hovis for heroin schemes. You don’t need to be a bleeding heart liberal to disagree with the government’s position.  Nigel Farage noted early that if the government can subsidise Eat Out To Help Out, not giving poor kids lunch in the school holidays looks mean and wrong.  

Local authorities have been providing free school meals for more than a century. The original logic was that children who were too malnourished could not get the benefit of an education. When you think about it in this way, it is illogical to differentiate between term-time and holidays.  Anyway, free school meals for poor children have been uncontroversial for generations during school terms.

Why the sudden focus now? The immediate prompt has been the intervention of Marcus Rashford, who has personal experience of going hungry as a child. Mr Rashford has shown himself a mature, dignified, careful and principled campaigner (and has benefited hugely by being underestimated by his opponents, who seem to have assumed that because he is a young footballer he must be stupid or naive). His intervention has been well-timed, because many can readily accept that this year many parents have found themselves in unexpected difficulties.

Surprisingly, so far there has been no polling on public attitudes to this question. I expect the Conservative position will attract a bit more support than one would guess from the media coverage and Twitter. Many are hostile to the idea that the not very well-off should further subsidise what they see as feckless parents.  The voices of such people have not really been heard in this debate.  I have a hunch, however, that view would be quite commonly heard in Red Wall seats.

The Labour of Tony Blair would have found a way both of backing Marcus Rashford and of reassuring such voters.  We are looking at two separate problems here: the problem of hungry children and the problem of poor parenting.  Children should not be going hungry because some parents are irresponsible (especially when many of the hungry children have highly responsible parents).

Now Sir Keir Starmer and his leadership team have an opportunity here.  As well as strongly supporting Marcus Rashford’s campaign, they could also be talking at the same time about how to improve parenting, offering a muscular socialism of the family.  There is a golden opportunity here to show traditionalist voters that Labour still understands the concept of community to involve not just generosity but also firm standard-setting.

Labour look set to miss this opportunity, given how they have run with this topic so far. I expect that the Conservatives will in the end backtrack – this government has already run up a long list of u-turns and there is no reason to assume this will be any different.  Whether they do or don’t, they’re going to be bruised by the experience. But if Labour miss this opportunity, that will matter too.  They know which voters they need to reconnect with.  That’s going to take a shift of mindset that they don’t yet seem ready to make.

Alastair Meeks

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