Last week, on 21 October, 322 Tory MPs voted down a motion that would have granted free school meals to millions of hungry children during the holidays. This callous move has rightly been met with an uproar from the public.
Footballer Marcus Rashford had already claimed headlines for his campaign around the same issue earlier this year, when schools were closed at the height of the pandemic.
In advance of the recent vote in Parliament, Rashford tweeted to his followers: “Paying close attention to the Commons today and to those who are willing to turn a blind eye to the needs of our most vulnerable children.”
Paying close attention to the Commons today and to those who are willing to turn a blind eye to the needs of our most vulnerable children, 2.2M of them who currently qualify for Free School Meals. 42% newly registered. Not to mention the 1.5M children who currently don’t qualify.— Marcus Rashford MBE (@MarcusRashford) October 21, 2020
Tory MP Steve Baker quickly responded to the England footballer: “Everyone knows feeding hungry children is a top priority...But if the economy and currency collapse, the poor will be devastated.”
In other words, according to the Conservatives, the priority must be to ‘balance the books’ at all costs, even if this means forcing working-class children to go hungry. This insidious claim has been repeated in various forms throughout the pandemic by the Tories, who have consistently put profit before people.
Elsewhere, other Tory MPs have let the mask slip over this issue, showing their true contempt towards the working class. In one particularly shocking set of tweets, for example, Conservative MP for Mansfield Ben Bradley stated that free school meals vouchers effectively handed cash over to drug dealers and brothels.
Once again, then, everyone can see that the Tories are the same old ‘Nasty Party’ that they have always been.
Following the recent vote, Rashford has restarted his campaign, looking to mobilise public support and gain help from local communities across the country. His hope is to pressure the Tories into implementing the recommendations of the National Food Strategy. This would grant free school meals to any children under 16, where a parent is a recipient of Universal Credit, with this extended throughout school holidays.
These aims were included in a petition to Parliament entitled End child food poverty – no child should be going hungry. By yesterday evening, this petition had reached well over one million signatures.
Blown away by news of local businesses stepping up to fill the voucher scheme deficit during the October half term. Selflessness, kindness, togetherness, this is the England I know 🏴— Marcus Rashford MBE (@MarcusRashford) October 22, 2020
Add #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY to your tweets so I can track them. I will share as many as I can ♥️
Businesses up and down have also joined in to help Rashford’s campaign. This is particularly hypocritical and opportunistic from some of the larger employers who have taken part in the campaign, such as Deliveroo.
These companies are part of the problem. It is they who are responsible for the in-work poverty that is on the rise across Britain, due to the poverty wages that the bosses pay workers. Now they are jumping on Rashford’s bandwagon, cynically using this campaign for free school meals in order to boost their image.
Splits and U-turns
The Tories have found themselves in something of a quagmire over this issue – as they have with almost everything else recently.
On one side are the so-called ‘fiscally responsible’ Tories, with their poster boy Rishi Sunak. They are trying to export responsibility for alleviating child poverty onto local councils, supposedly to achieve ‘economic stability’. As if cutting free school meals is going to make any real dent to the government’s debts and deficits!
On the other side, Boris Johnson is under pressure from both the public and his own Northern MPs, who are outraged by this cold-hearted decision that will affect their working-class constituents. One anonymous Tory backbencher allegedly stated that he’d “never known so many Conservative MPs and council leaders so angry”.
Given these mounting pressures, another Tory U-turn wouldn’t come as a shock at this point. Such incoherence and zig-zagging is indicative of this chaotic government, which has been split down the middle by events.
Ultimately, this flip-flopping and confusion is the product of the turbulent objective situation that Johnson and the Tories find themselves presiding over. This is a government of crisis, ruling at a time of utter turmoil. And the problems facing them are only growing deeper, with a second wave hitting the UK and the Brexit deadline looming.
Labour’s position has been along similar lines to the recommendations of the National Food Strategy. Their initial bill was voted down, but Keir Starmer has said that Labour would potentially table another vote on the issue before the end of the year “if things are not sorted”.
Yet Starmer has done little to push on this huge issue. Instead of fighting the Tories, his focus has been on attacking the left within his own party. From the start, therefore, it is Rashford who has seemed more like the real leader of the opposition.
What neither Rashford nor the Labour leadership – new or old – explain, however, is why child poverty is such an extensive and growing problem.
Prior to his scandalous suspension, Jeremy Corbyn also joined the debate, stating that:
“The public anger over the Tories' callous policy on #FreeSchoolMeals reflects a growing realisation that we need to tackle the country's inhumane levels of child poverty.
“We can #EndChildPoverty if the political will is there to do so.”
But this scourge on society is not simply due to a lack of “political will”. To genuinely end child poverty, we must tackle the root of the problem: the capitalist system.
Before the pandemic, rates of poverty (and therefore of child poverty also) were already dramatically increasing in the UK. In 2018-19, there were 4.2 million children living in poverty – equating to 30% of the country’s children. This figure rises to 46% amongst BAME families.
Looking at the statistics, there is a clear and obvious correlation between the levels of child poverty and the constant attacks on the working class, who have faced a decade of austerity, hitting welfare, public services, jobs, and wages.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation measures poverty levels in the UK. In 2018, the Foundation found that 4 million workers lived below the poverty line. This was up by a third from 2011.
This is indicative of the parasitic capitalist system, which pays workers the bare minimum whilst extracting the maximum profits out of workers. Added to this, the working class and the poor are forced to bear the burden for the Tories’ attempts to cut the deficit – that is, to pay for the crisis of capitalism.
This was the situation before the pandemic. And doubtless workers will see their living standards deteriorate further in the period ahead, as government support for jobs and wages is wound down, and those facing local COVID restrictions see their hours and pay slashed.
For those already struggling to support themselves and their families before, it’s hard to imagine the plight for some families now and in the weeks and months to come.
The many vs the few
Free school meals are clearly a necessity for millions of children. The Labour Party must therefore throw their full weight behind Rashford’s campaign, and force the Tories into another U-turn on this issue.
However, this measure still remains a temporary bandage over a gaping wound. At the heart of this question lies a class issue, about who owns and controls the economy.
Whilst poverty rates – including child poverty – continue to soar, so too are the profits of the billionaires. This is no coincidence. As Karl Marx noted in Capital: the accumulation of wealth for the super-rich few is always at the same time an accumulation of misery and poverty for the many.
Beyond the votes in Parliament and the campaigns of well-meaning footballers, therefore, we must take on the system that generates this disgusting inequality. This means overthrowing the rotten capitalist system, and fighting for a society based on needs, not profits.
Tories let working class kids starve
By Lars Ohrvik-Stott, Goldsmiths Marxists
At the end of 2019, the Conservative party emerged victorious from the general election. For the first time in years, the Tories held a dominant majority in parliament and were poised, under the leadership of Boris Johnson, to lead the country unchallenged once again. 2020, however, had other plans.
The atrocious handling of the Covid-19 pandemic; the failed negotiations with the EU; and a succession of scandals involving Johnson’s closest aide, Dominic Cummings: all these have worked to wreak havoc on the reputation of the Tories, leaving the empty promises of a ‘strong and stable’ Britain in tatters. It seemed that the Tories had done all they could to alienate the electorate, but on the 21st of October, their reputation sunk to new depths.
In a stunning display of cruelty, the Conservative majority united to oppose a motion put forward by Labour, calling for the provision of free school meals to disadvantaged pupils over the Christmas holidays. The impact of this act of callousness on the behalf of the Tories (who exclusively opposed the bill) has been huge. Boris Johnson’s approval ratings, already low before this scandal, now sit at a shocking minus 19 across the UK. Even in England, Nicola Sturgeon is now more popular than Johnson, even though her party, the SNP, don’t even run for English seats!
There has been a momentous outpouring of condemnation of this act across all of British society − even from within the Conservative party itself! Most notably, the footballer Marcus Rashford, who pressured the government to provide free school meals over the summer holidays this year, has once again come out calling for the reinstatement of school meals, with close to one million people signing his petition.
The nasty party
It has not been missed that the Tories have chosen to shut down this programme whilst simultaneously voting for pay rises for MPs. This is a perfect example of the self-serving nature of their party and the class divides that very much still dominate society.
Defence of this vote based on the programme’s expense also fell flat. Even within the logic of austerity, denying children the base means of subsistence after spending vast amounts on a failed track and trace system and faulty Covid-19 tests (just to give a couple of examples) is not a necessary evil but a willing disregard for the population the Tories are supposed to govern.
Covid-19 has already laid waste to the economy, and we are sure to see an even greater economic decline, but punishing the most vulnerable and disenfranchised for the mistakes of the Tories can only make things worse. How can these demagogues claim to support so-called ‘meritocracy’ while robbing working class kids of a healthy upbringing?
This year has seen a steady erosion of the image carefully cultivated under David Cameron of ‘Compassionate Conservatism’. This debacle has merely added fuel to the fire, revealing the true face of the Tories. Indeed, the public perception of the Tories as the 'Nasty Party’ is back with a vengeance.
Austerity on the agenda
However, our task is not simply to oppose the Conservatives, but to fight for an alternative to the system that made such poverty possible in the first place. This is not just a problem of a few nasty, uncaring MPs in government, but a problem that stems from the inability of capitalism to provide everyone with a good start in life. Unless we can destroy the system that inherently places profits over people, the most vulnerable will always be at risk of starvation, poverty and deprivation.
Capitalism has already entered into a crisis of a colossal scale, and the ruling class are powerless to stop it. While the Tories have desperately loosened their purse strings to keep the economy afloat, this cannot last forever. Another austerity package is on its way, and the Tories’ opposition to this motion is just the beginning.
Mobilise against the Tories!
We must oppose the system that allows such events to happen by any means necessary. Whilst the Labour Party has promised to resubmit this motion before Parliament goes into recess over Christmas, there’s nothing stopping the Tory majority from voting it down again if they so please.
It’s clear that parliamentary debates aren’t enough to defend us from austerity. What is needed is a mass mobilisation against the Tories, led by the workers themselves. Unions like the NEU, whose numbers continue to swell after a decade of cuts to education, are well placed to lead the charge.
We must ensure that no child starves, no family goes without a home and that everyone is given the opportunities they deserve. The only way this can be achieved by doing away with capitalism altogether, and running society in the interests of need and not profit.