The modern centre-left case for letting poor kids go hungry

By David Osland

That Tory peers voted down free school meals for all children whose parents get Universal Credit will surprise no-one. That Labour peers were whipped to abstain is worth some comment.

As things stand, most kids in year three and above are ineligible for such extravagant largesse if household income from work tops a minimal £7,400 a year, roughly equivalent to one part-time salary.

Even the Tories’ own ‘food tsar’ thinks ensuring they get at least one square meal a day is entirely sensible.

But Boris Johnson – who incidentally blagged £27,000 worth of freebie takeaways in just eight months, with the bill footed by a wealthy Tory donor – kiboshed the suggestion.

So the Lib Dems tabled an amendment to the Schools Bill in the Lords, with the modest intent of making sure 1.3 million additional school students be guaranteed lunch at lunch time.

It fell by 108-51, with Labour taking a bold stand against Dinner Lady Communism, abstaining on the ostensible grounds that the wording was ‘too widely drawn’.

It’s hard not to suspect the true reason was a desire to distance Labour from the perception that it is somehow – Heaven forfend! – the Party for people on benefits.

So stop bloody griping, Oliver Twist. That taxpayer-subsidised bowl of gruel may not have tasted very nice, but at least you got something, right?

I’ll just note in passing here that peers pocket over £300 a day simply for showing up at the Upper House, and can choose where to dine from a wide range of heavily subsidised restaurants, perhaps washed down with a bottle of agreeable Chablis from an equally subsidised bar.

So incensed am I that I will be voting against my sitting Lord at the next Lords election. Or would do if I could, anyway.

Shortly afterwards I came across a piece by former Labour MP Phil Wilson – Blair’s successor in Sedgefield, and very much on the New Labour wing of the party – under the curious title “Calls for a right to food curtail ambition for our country, rather than extend it”.

At this point, some will no doubt accuse me of deliberate loony Corbynite disingenuity, of misrepresentation in the interests of polemic. All I can say is: read it for yourself.

It’s rambling and poorly constructed, making it difficult to discern the modern centre-left case for starving under-16s, even after repeated readings.

Wilson seems to opine that it would constitute “the reverse of our socialism” and “reducing our ambition for our people and our country” to make sure kids eat food while their parents lack an adequate disposable income.

The entire proposition is a false counterposition of monumental proportions. Of course the left should demand bread and roses. That hardly stops it from demanding bread first.

It’s somewhat akin to insisting that drilling seven year olds in the three Rs is selling them short, because what they really need to be learning these days is quantum mechanics, nanotechnology and differential calculus.

Apart from anything else, kids who don’t get breakfast tend to underperform at school, often leaving education as early as possible and with few qualifications, effectively condemned thereafter to a lifetime of low life chances.

Surely one of the most basic socialist ambitions for Britain is that children have full stomachs. Once we’ve established that – and yes, established it as a matter of human rights – we can take it from there.

Meanwhile, the Tories have unveiled their new strategy to take on childhood hunger. The government is going to subsidise an advertising campaign for restaurant chains and retailers which run ‘kids eat for a pound’ deals, a longstanding promotional device. How’s that for a middle finger to poor parents?

But as the cost of living crisis deepens, so inevitably the childhood hunger crisis will deepen too. Labour needs to sit up and take notice. That’s what it’s supposed to be there for.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time left wing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

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