Alex Snowdon on class warfare and the government’s commitment to inequality
The popular anti-Tory backlash over school holiday hunger is massive. It has clearly taken ministers and MPs very much by surprise. It seems like the most extraordinary political miscalculation as well as callous and cruel.
The backlash is taking some remarkable forms. In every city and town there are restaurants and cafes offering to provide free lunches for children during the half-term holiday week. Numerous Labour local councils are stepping in to do likewise. Churches, mosques and food banks have launched emergency appeals. A 22-year-old footballer, Marcus Rashford, has become a campaigning hero, furiously retweeting some of the countless offers of assistance.
The Observer’s front page highlighted a letter signed by over 2000 paediatricians backing Rashford’s campaign. It echoed the way in which medical and scientific experts have increasingly spoken out against the government over issues like lockdown and mass testing. A similar letter was signed by over 200 children’s authors. An online petition swiftly gathered hundreds of thousands of names.
Social media memes mock the Tories mercilessly. They contrast the refusal to provide food for poor children with chancellor Rishi Sunak’s flagship policy of the summer: using taxpayer money to lure people to eat out, something that now seems to have aided the resurgence of virus transmission.
Satirical alternatives like ‘Eat Nowt to Help Out’ and ‘Starve a kid to save a quid’ get uncomfortably close to the bone. Similarly, the generous taxpayer-subsidised offerings in House of Commons bars and cafes have been widely highlighted.
Wednesday’s Commons vote was a very welcome move by Labour. On many issues related to the pandemic, Keir Starmer has barely differentiated Labour from the Tory government. But this was an issue where a clear gap between the two main parties existed. It has subsequently emerged as a major fault line between the popular mood and the government too.
It was entirely plausible that Boris Johnson might agree to proposals for meal vouchers for poor children during school holidays this autumn and winter. It would cost comparatively little, we are in exceptional circumstances because of the economic impact of coronavirus - and there have been similar U-turns before.
Johnson’s government capitulated under pressure to similar demands for meals provision during the summer holidays. It even awarded Rashford an MBE in recognition of his campaigning and charitable efforts. A precedent had been created. It would surely be extremely contentious to resist demands for an extension of support for children in poverty.
The issue was also explosive because it coincided with the opposition of northern mayors and local councils, led by Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham, to central government’s handling of restrictions in different areas. An opinion poll shows that nearly twice as many people approve of Burnham’s stance as disapprove of it. This expresses a sense of injustice about how different areas, and different sections of society, are unevenly affected by the latest stage of the pandemic.
This political conflict has provided fresh daily headlines for the last couple of weeks and a headache for senior ministers. It has focused political debate on the question of who pays for the crisis. It has brought class and inequality to the fore.
Nothing crystallises these issues more than that of whether poor children will be supported in getting meals during school holidays. There is a powerful general argument for such provision, but even those who remain sceptical can see that we are in particularly challenging times. Unemployment is rising, while the new furlough arrangements involve the affected workers receiving a hopelessly inadequate two thirds of their pay.
The public response to such Tory cruelty is a mix of raw class anger and a sense of solidarity and compassion. The anger is sharpened by an acute sense of sickening inequality in how the crisis is playing out. The widespread social media disgust at the dining arrangements available to MPs is part of this. It is telling that politicians’ expenses has suddenly become a live and politically charged issue again over a decade after it became a scandal.
Why did Johnson choose to oppose the proposal for funding of meal vouchers during school holidays, targeted at those who normally receive free school meals? There is the Tory instinct for not giving a damn about the poor. There is also the ideological aversion to state intervention and the fear that it would create an irreversible precedent: an emergency pandemic measure could become a permanent fixture.
It also suggests a degree of arrogance and disconnection from popular feeling. The Tories won a big majority last December; they often believe their own propaganda about it representing overwhelming popular support for aggressive right-wing policies, forgetting the role that Brexit controversies played. Boris Johnson’s approval ratings have now been falling for several months and a poll at the weekend indicated a small (two-point) Labour lead in voting intention.
Johnson has been under serious pressure for weeks, from his own back benchers, to adopt a looser approach to coronavirus restrictions. That pressure runs counter to what scientists, the Labour Party, trade unions, local councils and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all been pushing for.
Indeed it runs in the opposite direction to reality: rising numbers of infections, hospital admissions and deaths. The holiday hunger issue is another example of Jonson responding to the ideological zealotry of Tory MPs, as any semblance of a consensus collapses.
The disgust at the Tories felt across society is reminiscent of the outrage at Dominic Cummings’ hypocritical behaviour earlier this year. There is a similar sense of ‘one rule for them and another rule for us’. This time it is even more powerfully felt because it is a matter of children potentially going hungry.
The Tories banked on many working class people perceiving the poor as a class apart - an undeserving minority estranged from the daily lives of most people. However, most parents will know a fellow parent who struggles to provide for their children. Many people, during this period of heightened insecurity and precarity, will feel they are not far away from sliding into such poverty themselves.
There is a culture of care and compassion for each other in communities that wealthy Tory politicians can hardly imagine.
This isn’t going away. We can expect the Christmas holidays to be very damaging for the Tories, if there is no U-turn very soon. The issue dovetails with a two larger trends: the unmistakeable sense that the Tories cannot manage the public health crisis and the growing anger at the economic destruction that is unfolding - which overwhelmingly affects working class people.
Rashford and Burnham have in different ways given expression to the popular opposition to Tory misrule. Labour called it right on the holiday hunger issue, but would surely be opening up a bigger poll lead - and inflicting more damage on the government - if Keir Starmer channelled the anger and sense of unfairness that is widespread in society.
The old consensus that held together for much of the coronavirus crisis is in ruins. There will be important political and social struggles, emerging from the present crisis, in the weeks and months ahead.
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Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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