During the summer, Marcus Rashford led a successful campaign which persuaded the government to make a U-turn and provide free school meals to the poorest children during the holiday period.
His second campaign – to provide free school meals over the Christmas holiday – has so far been unsuccessful. When the issue came to a vote in the House of Commons on 21 October 2020, only 5 Conservative MPs rebelled against the government, voted with the opposition parties and, in effect, supported Marcus Rushford’s campaign. 321 MPs, all Conservatives, supported the government’s line and voted against the motion.
What are the thought processes that led these 321 MPs to undermine Rashford’s campaign?
As Philip Hammond and others have pointed out, many members of the Conservative party today hold a fundamentalist belief that one should never interfere with the markets. This tends to mean that they have internalised three myths:
- The magic of markets ensures that money goes to those who are most deserving;
- Rich people need to be incentivised with more money – and it can always be found – whereas supporting the poor is unaffordable; and
- Giving money to the poor and merely makes matters worse.
Myth #1: The magic of markets ensures money goes to the most deserving
The notion that markets will always be right is one which, were it true, would have some enormous attractions.
Policy formulation is always complex, and any new policy will have unforeseen consequences. If markets cannot be trusted, then it is the job of politicians and their advisers to think through these consequences in detail and try to mitigate any negative implications of a change.
If, on the other hand markets are infallible, then life becomes far simpler. All you need to do is to get government out of the way. Slash regulation. Slash public spending. Slash taxes. Privatise everything. Leave everything to the market. This, in a nutshell, is the market fundamentalist philosophy. And it is extremely attractive to anyone who lacks either the capability or the desire to do the hard work of policy formulation.
Unfortunately, as we have written before, the notion that markets are even close to infallible does not stand up to comparison with the real world.
Nevertheless, for those who find themselves doing rather well out of our current economic system, this quasi-religious belief in the infallibility of markets can be extremely comforting.
Myth #2: Rich people need more money – and it can always be found
In the market fundamentalist philosophy, entrepreneurs are the engine of progress. Where there is a need in society, an entrepreneur will step in and provide the needed goods and services, in the process both enriching him or herself and benefiting society simultaneously. The best way, therefore, to drive progress is to maximise the incentives for entrepreneurs.
This government has taken the philosophy further than any before, and provided mechanisms for ‘entrepreneurs’ with no relevant expertise except for their connections with the Conservative party to win enormous contracts for the provision of sometimes unusable personal protective equipment (PPE).
As we have written before the total value of these ‘incentives’ is well over £1 billion. As we pointed out before, the amount that the government finds it can afford dwarfs the amount it claims to be unable to afford for poorer people.
Myth #3: Giving food to the poor merely makes matters worse
Incredible though it seems, the principal argument adopted against feeding poor children over the winter has been the third one: that, although it seems superficially like the kind thing to do, in reality giving them food would only make things worse.
There seem to have been three forms of this argument:
- that if you give poor people food, they won’t eat it – they will simply trade it for crack;
- that the incredible generosity of the government earlier in the year means that local councils should have no problem in feeding any genuinely hungry children who might be living in their city or region; and, of course
- that giving them food will only make them dependent on handouts.
The Crack Den Argument
As Conservative MP Ben Bradley put it, “At one school in Mansfield 75% of kids have a social worker, 25% of parents are illiterate. Their estate is the centre of the area’s crime. One kid lives in a crack den, another in a brothel. These are the kids that most need our help, extending FSM doesn’t reach these kids.”
Another Tory MP, Mark Jenkinson, concurred: “I know in my constituency that, as tiny a minority as it might be, food parcels are sold or traded for drugs. And that’s parcels, not vouchers – which have greater monetary value. As I said, a relatively minuscule number – but we can’t pretend it doesn’t happen. Pretending, to score political points, helps no one.” It is heartening to see his dislike of pretence in pursuit of political points.
The ‘We’ve done So Much Already’ Argument
The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis claimed that, “In the holidays, what we’ve put in place actually is not just the uplift in universal credit [which the government aims to reverse], because obviously the schools are closed, so it’s about making sure the welfare system can cover and support what people need. So we’ve put the uplift into universal credit, around just over £1,000 a year, but also very specifically we’ve put £63m into local authorities to support and help people in hardship … and a number of local authorities are using it to do exactly that.”
In fact, they have done so little that the ‘extra’ money given to councils has long been spent, as many Conservative Councils (as well as opposition-controlled councils) have made clear. And of course, this is all against the backdrop of cuts in the government contribution to local authority funding of around 50% percent between 2010-2018.
The Dependency Argument
The Tory MP for Devizes, in Wiltshire, Danny Kruger, wrote that “The problem is that generous, unconditional, universal benefit entitlements trap people in dependency on the state and rightly enrage people who are working hard for themselves. That’s why I believe in a more flexible, community-led approach to welfare.” This has echoes of Therese Coffey’s comment that foodbanks were a perfect solution to poverty.
Ben Bradley added to his argument by commenting: “Extending FSM to school holidays passes responsibility for feeding kids away from parents, to the State. It increases dependency.”
Former Cabinet Office Minister John Penrose, also rejected “sticking plaster solutions which increase dependency”.
He added: “Practical measures which make a genuine difference to the causes of poverty include things like the Pupil Premium, which gives schools extra funding for disadvantaged pupils; breakfast clubs, which help children with chaotic parents who send them to school without breakfast so they can’t concentrate properly.”
This last is a new twist: if the parents are chaotic (which according to market fundamentalism they must be, or they would not be poor), their children should not be fed except when they are at school.
The dependency argument, of course, applies to all forms of state support, including the NHS – and it is an explicit part of the market fundamentalist agenda to dismantle all these forms of support.
What Can I do?
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