24th October 2020
The appeal by Manchester United footballer, Marcus Rashford, that those children on free school meals may have no bread during school holidays, has met with a resounding “let them eat cake” response by UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, backed by his thumping House of Commons majority. As with most aspects of the current crisis, Labour were once again late to the oppose the government, but did put down a motion in the House of Commons on Wednesday, inspired by Rashford’s campaign, which was defeated by 322 votes to 261.
Over the school summer holiday period Rashford was able to force a concession from the government, to provide meal vouchers of £15 per week for those families with children on free schools meals, in order to provide support for the lowest paid, most vulnerable and those most likely to be working in sectors where the pandemic would have the most impact.
The Commons vote has triggered a wave of opposition from Councils across England, there are schemes to support children during school holidays elsewhere in the UK, who are preparing to make local interventions if the government is not prepared to back down. They have been joined by cafes and businesses pledging to help, while Rashford’s petition to implement a national food strategy has gathered over 500,000 signatures. Official figures are showing that 1.4 million children in England are eligible for free school meals, with unofficial estimates suggesting that this may now be closer to 2 million.
That there is the prospect of any child going hungry in the world’s fifth richest nation, never mind 2 million, is a damning indictment of the priorities within a capitalist economy. Even Nick Forbes, Leader of Newcastle City Council and Leader of the Local Government Association Labour Group, but hardly a left wing firebrand, commented,
“Children should never be left to go hungry – the fact that this Conservative government can’t see that shows it has completely lost its moral compass. They have wasted millions on high-paid consultants and have given billions to Serco to run a test and trace system that doesn’t work, but they draw the line at using a tiny fraction of that to prevent children going hungry this half term. It is sickening.”
At the other end of the social spectrum things are, as ever, not so stark. An exemption included in the tier 2 rules allows freelancers to work over lunch, a caveat which has meant some high end London restaurants interpreting this to mean up to 30 can dine at a time, as long as “the topic is business.” These restaurants are relying on “exception 3” in the government’s regulations which states,
“Exception 3 is that the gathering is reasonably necessary – (a) for work purposes or for the provision of voluntary or charitable services.”
At the Sexy Fish restaurant in Mayfair diners could select king crab and caviar sushi at £42 a piece (or nearly 3 free school meal vouchers) and this was only one of a number of high end restaurants doing a roaring trade this week. It is unlikely that any of the ‘freelance’ diners were amongst the thousands of workers in the cultural sector struggling to survive the closure of arts and music venues across the country, many of whom have slipped through the net of government support.
Current estimates suggest that on average a self-employed worker in the arts or hospitality sector will get a mere £450 a month from the Treasury’s self employment income support scheme, just half the level during the first lockdown. Not much king crab and caviar sushi likely to be bought on those wages. It is estimated that 500,000 self employed people work in sectors of the economy which are either shut or struggling under the weight of COVID-19 restrictions. A record 250,000 self employed people have fallen out of work since the start of 2020.
The extent to which the government have mishandled the pandemic is disgraceful in every aspect. Increasingly, the eyes of many are being opened to the calamitous choice made at the last election and the iniquities which are endemic to capitalism. A system which allows some to dine on caviar while others scrape together the money to feed the kids during school holidays will never ‘level up’, however much Boris Johnson chooses to repeat his most hollow mantra.
The real flaw in the system is in fact the system itself. No amount of tinkering will ultimately change the capitalist leopard’s spots. The realisation is growing that real change has to come. It is not the need to eat cake, or even grasp a bigger slice that is required, it is time to take over the entire bakery and put production in the hands of those who will ensure the cake is fairly distributed, so no-one goes hungry during school holidays, or at any other time of the year.