A student getting food from a school cafeteria. Photo: wikimedia commons A student getting food from a school cafeteria. Photo: wikimedia commons

Marcus Rashford’s intervention tipped the balance and pushed the government into concessions on free meals showing movements can win without the Labour machine, argues Shabbir Lakha

After repeatedly justifying the planned decision to scrap free school meal vouchers for the most vulnerable children over summer, Boris Johnson had to humiliatingly u-turn today. Johnson’s spokesman said: “the PM fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer” – something that hadn’t apparently occurred to him until today.

The u-turn comes after a campaign was mounted and was taken up as one of the demands which the NEU put on the government last week, and then got a national media spotlight thanks to the intervention by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford. Tory austerity of the last ten years, especially since 2016, has resulted in a massive increase in child poverty which now affects up to 4 million children and has left 1.3 million children relying on free school meals to avoid going hungry.

The free school meals issue is emblematic of Boris Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus crisis since the beginning. From his pursuance of herd immunity and telling the nation to “take it on the chin” through to his callous lifting of the lockdown, public safety has not been his priority. It’s estimated that three quarters of Britain’s devastating coronavirus death toll could have been avoided if Johnson had begun the lockdown a week earlier. Care homes were completely abandoned by the government, without PPE or proper equipment and 25,000 patients were discharged from hospitals into care homes without testing.

Where the government hasn’t been criminally negligent, it’s been unfathomably incompetent. During Easter, the contract for the school meal vouchers was given to EdenRed and their system almost immediately collapsed and left thousands of families unable to redeem their vouchers. This is one of a litany of failures by private companies that the government has awarded contracts to including Serco’s test and trace system and the private labs that conducted Covid tests whose results disappeared.

The u-turn is also an example of how every mitigating circumstance during the course of this pandemic has come about from campaigning and public pressure. Teachers and parents forced the government to close schools and they largely stopped them being reopened on 1st June. The support for self-employed people and the decision to extend the furlough scheme till October were also resisted by the Tories until public pressure forced their hand.

The debate in the last few days of whether it was a sensible use of taxpayer money to support starving children stands starkly with the government yesterday telling people to “do your duty and spend big” as shops reopened. While this government has spent billions on bailing out billionaire-run companies, it is apparently up to ordinary people – millions of whom are furloughed or unemployed – to spend what little they have to save the economy.

One clear absence in the successful struggles that people have pushed the government back with is the Labour Party. Teachers, parents, bus drivers, tube workers, health and care workers and now Marcus Rashford have all provided more effective opposition to the government than Sir Keir Starmer. More than useless, he’s almost consistently been on the wrong side of the argument. Arguing for a lockdown exit strategy, that schools should be the first to reopen and that extending the furlough scheme would have been unfeasible, his “forensic” yet “constructive” opposition has repeatedly given cover for the Tories’ detrimental decisions.

Now Starmer’s supporting Priti Patel’s draconian plans to imprison anyone who vandalises a statue for 10 years. He signed a Daily Mail pledge to protect Churchill’s statue when no one in the movement has attempted or planned to remove it. And the government is set to ask police officers to enforce the ban on gatherings of more than 6 people at protests planned for the weekend and it doesn’t look like Labour is going to oppose this either.

The measures that have protected lives during this coronavirus pandemic have come from people organising and protesting, as has the highlighting of the deeply racist society we live in and the discussion on how we change it. As the threat of a second wave grows and the economic crisis deepens, our ability to fight back has to be absolutely defended. We should remember that we’ve pushed the government back consistently in the last three months, we haven’t relied on the Labour leadership, and we’ve won, again and again.

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.