Free School Meals for All
On Thursday, Labour outlined plans to apply VAT on private school fees to fund free school meals for every primary pupil in England. The numbers add up: the provision would cost £900 million a year, and the prospective tax would raise far more than that. Speaking alongside the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, Jeremy Corbyn said the measure would help ensure that ‘no child is held back because of their background.’
Free school meals are far from gesture politics; their nutritional and cognitive benefits, especially for poorer children, are well documented. The coalition government introduced free school meals for all children up to the age of seven, and older children from low-income families are eligible through means testing. But that isn’t enough. According to a recent poll, nearly eight out of ten teachers see hungry children in school at least once a week. The survey also found that a third of teachers have brought food into work for pupils who were going without breakfast. It's unsurprising, then, that the immediate response to Labour’s proposals from the National Union of Teachers was overwhelmingly positive.
But the criticism on Twitter came within minutes. This is a ‘Liberal Democrat policy’, some people complained, as if political parties could patent half-decent ideas (and even though Labour wanted to do it in 1945). It will alienate ‘middle-class voters’, admonished others, as if the parents of the 7 per cent of children who go to private schools were the ‘middle’ class. ‘Failed politics of envy’, gargled other fault-finders, as if applying a consumption tax on a service was tantamount to erecting barricades on the Mall. Wait till you buy a meal at your favourite restaurant, comrades.
And yet the most common criticism didn’t focus on the VAT measure, or Corbyn’s class war politics, but alleged that universal provision was regressive. In offering free school meals to every child, Labour was doling out subsidies for the middle class rather than making precise interventions to help the very poorest. In a time of limited resources, that was both profligate and reckless. (When will Corbyn resign?)
The most persistently destructive tendency of the modern centre-left is to mistake the charity of the patrician for the solidarity of an effective and well-functioning welfare state. This view, while often well-intentioned, has done as much over recent decades to sink the postwar consensus as the honest zealotry of those who wished to dismember it altogether. As a defensive position, restricting welfare provision to those who most need it is understandable, doubly so in the context of austerity. But it’s a dead end. It means the left is incapable of offering a broader vision that bridges electoral groups, and concedes ground to the malicious view that all state intervention is bad, and all those who use it are parasitic. Meanwhile, income inequality has increased and social mobility has declined.
It’s almost twenty years since Walter Korpi and Joakim Palme showed that countries with the most universal government programmes were the most successful in reducing hardship. Means testing requires people to jump through bureaucratic hoops and carries a stigma, both of which can deter people from applying for services. Non-universal welfare provision also loses the consent of those who think they are net losers. As with other forms of collective insurance, the more we think we stand to gain, the more willing we are to contribute. That is why the National Health Service (founded on the principles that it meet the needs of everyone, be free at the point of delivery and be based on clinical need, not ability to pay) topped a recent list of institutions – ahead of the armed forces and the royal family – that make people proud to be British. Few in power could dare to admit it, but it’s also the closest thing modern Britain has to socialism.
Labour’s free school meal policy polled well almost immediately, with 52 per cent supporting it and only 27 per cent opposed. Charity, when it comes to public services, is a dud. Many who pay for it feel short-changed, while those use it are vilified. It's time for the left to ditch means testing, and re-embrace the universal principle – it’s effective, and it’s popular.