On 16 June, Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford managed to wring more concessions from the Tory government than Keir Starmer has achieved in months as Leader of the Opposition.
In an open letter to Parliament written on 8 June, Rashford pleaded with MPs to reverse the government’s decision to deny working-class children school meal vouchers for the summer months.
Such a moving letter by Marcus Rashford https://t.co/Xy8YiJFTbB— Diane Abbott MP (@HackneyAbbott) June 15, 2020
During the summer, millions of working-class families rely on the school meals system to feed their children. But with many schools closed due to the pandemic, these families are struggling to cope.
The letter struck at the heart of the struggle working-class families across Britain are going through:
“During this pandemic people are existing on a knife’s edge,” Rashford wrote. “One missed bill is having a spiral effect, the anxiety and stress of knowing that poverty is the main driver of children ending up in care, a system that is designed to fail low-income families.”
Taking a stand
Detailing his own experiences, the England striker wrote how his parents, amongst thousands of others, “would rely on kids’ clubs over the summer break, providing a safe space and at least one meal, whilst they work.” This, however, isn’t a necessity available for many families in 2020.
Preceding the open letter, Rashford – who grew up in Wythenshawe, one of the poorest places in Greater Manchester – decided to spend most of the lockdown raising over £20 million pounds to feed hungry children. While the government and Manchester City Council stalled, the footballer chose not to forget where he’d come from.
In a subsequent interview, Rashford cited his working-class mother’s experience. “My mum was a single parent. She was literally working, trying to sleep, working, trying to sleep.”
Like millions of school children today, Rashford relied on school meals and community initiatives to survive. Such a sentiment strikes a chord with many families, whose material conditions – and ultimately their ability to feed their children – is being worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.
Rashford’s campaign soon picked up pace, receiving praise and support across the labour movement and the wider press. Keir Starmer, who up until that point had been silent on the issue, then attempted to hijack the campaign. But his feigned attempt at support via a few retweets and a video on his Instagram failed to grab the political limelight; the focus lay with Marcus Rashford.
Then came the U-turn: Boris announced to his Cabinet on the Tuesday morning that he would give in to Rashford’s demands, allocating £120 million of government funds for a “Covid Summer Food Fund.”
Starmer’s sterile opposition
Despite the initial rejection of the open letter, the resultant U-turn on 16 June was yet another blow for Johnson’s government – and a huge victory for over 1.3 million school children.
This victory, however, should not have had to come from the actions of a well-meaning professional footballer. Labour supporters and working-class families more generally have been left asking: why wasn’t the Labour Party leading the charge against the Tories on this question from the beginning?
With a single letter, Marcus Rashford has provided more genuine opposition to this callous and out-of-touch government than almost three months of ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer’s sterile leadership.
Elected back in April on a promise of “credible opposition”, such hollow rhetoric has become a hallmark of Starmer’s tenure as Labour Leader.
Which side are you on?
At the same time, in the midst of the frenzy around Rashford’s campaign, the Labour leadership also tried to quietly side with Priti Patel’s plan to prosecute Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters.
Keir Starmer is capitulating to Priti Patel's 10 year prison sentence statue shagger demand while a Manchester United striker is single-handedly playing cunt chicken with the government and winning. https://t.co/1sGP0SotZQ— Ghostface Kafka (36 Chambers) (@TheKafkaDude) June 16, 2020
In a usual “behind a paywall” policy statement in the Sunday Telegraph, the government announced plans to jail protestors who vandalised war memorials and other monuments. Crucially, this new law would also cover the statues being targeted by BLM activists.
In response, Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds told Sky News that he “would support the government in creating a specific offence of protecting war memorials and I would be willing to work with the government on that.”
This stance by the Labour leadership is appalling; and yet it comes as no surprise after Starmer’s appearance on LBC, where he criticised protesters in Bristol for “criminal damage” in the wake of the momentous toppling of the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston.
Keir Starmer’s inaction over child hunger and his position towards the BLM movement are linked, given the root cause of both these problems. Over 45% of black and ethnic-minority children are in poverty.
Rashford feared that, “as a black man from a low-income family in Wythenshawe, Manchester”, he’d become just a statistic. But he was lucky. This, however, is the unfortunate reality for many born into working-class BAME households.
Poverty and racism are systemic problems: the product of capitalism - a system that Starmer does not oppose, but in fact defends.
What the labour movement needs is not a leadership that sides with the government on fundamental class issues. Workers cannot rely on the initiatives and good intentions of footballers to feed their children.
Marcus Rashford’s letter correctly details that the usual measures are no longer applicable for many families, who are now suffering from a sharp fall in income during the pandemic. But even in ‘normal times’, the system does not work for millions of families.
The labour movement needs leaders that will oppose this. We need our leaders to fight for the socialist transformation of society – which will eradicate hunger, poverty, and racism once and for all.