After last week’s defeat in the Commons of an opposition day motion to provide free school meals to children who need them during half-terms and holidays until Easter 2021, the footballer and child poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford released a statement:
Put aside all the noise, the digs, the party politics and let’s focus on the reality. A significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today. We must stop stigmatising, judging and pointing fingers. Our views are being clouded by political affiliation. This is not politics, this is humanity.
Rashford’s child poverty task force has consistently taken the line that children’s access to nutritious food isn’t a matter of party political persuasion, but of basic human rights – a principle that has held firm even as the Labour Party has thrown its weight behind the campaign.
Some of the responses – such as a tweet (now deleted) calling Rashford ‘adorable’ – criticised him for not being more scathing of the Tories’ deliberate impoverishment of British children. But Rashford isn’t the naive one here. Charitable institutions are required by law not to appear partisan or motivated by party political bias. If charities such as FareShare are to collaborate with Rashford, he has to steer clear of attacking the Conservative Party. More compellingly, his party neutral campaign shows up the way selective and superficial complaints of ‘politicisation’ or ‘depoliticisation’ are used to mask political guilt and complicity.
Marcus Rashford doesn’t owe the Labour Party anything, certainly not explicit allegiance. He was born (as I was) into a Black, working-class family in 1997. There’s no question that the New Labour years saw a substantial decline in child poverty, driven by increased spending on benefits, tax credits, the national minimum wage, childcare support and Sure Start centres. Growing up in one of the poorest districts of Manchester, however, Rashford will have witnessed the stigmatisation of children and families who relied on state welfare to feed, clothe and shelter themselves. The New Labour years saw regular attacks on ‘scroungers’, ‘chavs’, single mothers, asylum seekers and hooded youths. When Rashford says ‘we must stop stigmatising, judging and pointing fingers,’ he’s talking to the Labour Party, too.
Meanwhile, Conservative politicians doubled down on their decision not to feed hungry children. The former education secretary Nicky Morgan suggested on Question Time that the Commons defeat was Labour’s fault for tabling it as a ‘politicised’ opposition day motion. In a twitter exchange with Rashford, the MP for Wycombe,Steve Baker, said: ‘You have 3.4M followers Marcus, to my 96K. The power is yours here’ – as if 3.4 million Twitter followers somehow translated into more ‘power’ than 364 Tory MPs.
When McDonald’s announced that it would be delivering a million free school meals to children in need, the fast food giant was said to have ‘shamed’ the government. But McDonald’s – with its union-busting techniques, poverty wages and insecure working conditions – isn’t shaming the government by intervening; it’s fulfilling one of the Conservatives’ key articles of faith: that people should be dependent on the will and generosity of the private sector and the free market. When the Conservative MP Ben Bradley claims that extending free school meals ‘increases dependency’ on the state, he is not only peddling a myth about the psychopathology of working-class people, but toeing the line that, even in a pandemic, we should not turn to the state. Private enterprise intervening to feed children in the middle of a pandemic is no different, in principle, from the role Serco plays in managing NHS test and trace. (It does differ in one important respect: the contract for feeding hungry children has been an open, competitive process for visible philanthropists and corporate social responsibility teams, where everyone’s a winner; while Serco appears to have been ‘cherry-picked’ for the £108 million test and trace contract.)
In one breath, the Conservatives would have us believe that we are an island of strangers, the nation is not a family, and households can only be responsible for themselves. In the next breath they instruct us to turn to our neighbours for help and praise corporations for their benevolence, even if it’s the poverty wages paid by those same corporations that have left working families dependent on welfare and charity. These are reconcilable positions for the Tories, because on their view no one – not the state, or private citizens, or corporations – is compelled to intervene to help people in need. Intervention, when it comes, as with the U-turn over the provision of free school meals during the summer holidays, should be seen as a ‘change of heart’ or ‘generosity’ rather than a duty or social obligation.
Football is one of the only professions where nepotism won’t help you get ahead. It’s genuinely meritocratic. But on-pitch talent like Rashford’s is vanishingly rare; there aren’t many more than two hundred English players in the Premier League. For Rashford to focus on collective action and state responsibility, rather than preaching to children that they can simply transcend poverty by ‘working hard’ like he did, is a radical act, even if it refuses to carry the label of politics. The constraints Rashford is working within do not mean that political parties, or any of us, should ever be receptive to the myth that feeding children, or the stigmatisation that comes hand in hand with state welfare, is non-political.