By Cassius Smith-Frazer
A Humanitarian Crisis
In November of 2018, the then UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, visited the UK. His purpose was, “…to report to the Human Rights Council on the extent to which the Government’s policies and programmes relating to extreme poverty are consistent with its human rights obligations.” In April the following year, Alston published his findings in the now infamous report Visit to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Summarising his findings, Alston wrote the following:
Although the United Kingdom is the world’s fifth largest economy, one fifth of its population (14 million people) live in poverty, and 1.5 million of them experienced destitution in 2017. Policies of austerity introduced in 2010 continue largely unabated, despite the tragic social consequences. Close to 40 per cent of children are predicted to be living in poverty by 2021. Food banks have proliferated; homelessness and rough sleeping have increased greatly; tens of thousands of poor families must live in accommodation far from their schools, jobs and community networks; life expectancy is falling for certain groups; and the legal aid system has been decimated.
Twice in the last 6 months, campaigns spearheaded by Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford have taken the government to task on the appalling levels of food poverty amongst children in the UK. Over the past 10 years, rates of food poverty in Britain have skyrocketed. In the last year alone, there has been an 81% increase in overall food parcel use, with a 122% increase in food parcels meant specifically for children. It is clear to all that this country is experiencing a profound humanitarian crisis. As we head into winter with rates of food poverty climbing and no effective response from the Government, the leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party has shown itself unwilling to take the Johnson administration to task.
Food poverty can be defined as the inability to afford, or to have access to, the right mix of food required for a healthy diet. Two terms are key here: affordability and health. Too many in this country clearly do not have access to sufficient quantities of food. However, there are many who even though they have access, cannot afford to sustain a healthy, nutritious diet, only being able to afford fast and junk food. The barriers to a healthy diet were laid out in a Facebook post (republished here by Amplify Stroud) from Southend-on-Sea Borough councillor Daniel Cowan:
So last night I made roast chicken with patatas bravas, baked feta and minted peas for four at a total cost of £8.21. We have enough leftovers for dinner if I bulk it out with rice/veg for an additional 80p. £9 for two dinners for four people. Sounds cheap, right? Well for £9 I could buy enough beans, frozen chips, frozen veg, fish fingers/nuggets/sausages to feed four people dinner for six nights, plus two packets of biscuits. Nutritionally it wouldn’t be great but four people would be fed for almost a week on what I spent on two meals.
We’ve heard from right-wing politicians that food poverty simply results from bad choices on the part of individuals who are suffering. Yet Councillor Cowan’s lived experience lays bare the economic realities which place constraints on choice, and in so doing foreclose the possibility of a consistently healthy diet. The choice between quality or quantity of food is in actuality a choice between risking days with no food in the cupboard or guaranteeing a week of full bellies; the responsible path is often chicken nuggets rather than roast veg. The truth is, the range of options available to individuals is determined by systemic, political factors. It is to those factors we must attend in order to solve food poverty.
Systemic and Political Failures
Britain’s food poverty situation is not the result of the sub-optimal choices of individuals, but systemic failings which have arisen thanks to the dominant political-economic regime of the past 40 years. This hegemonic mode of organising global capitalism is regularly referred to as neoliberalism. There are two consequences of neoliberalism in particular to which we can pin the blame for food-bank Britain.
Wages, Debt and the Cost of Living
In the postwar period, hourly compensation for labour grew apace with productivity up until the mid 1970s. Since then, we’ve seen a dramatic shift. Productivity has continued to rise, while wages have either limped up at a lower rate or stagnated altogether. In other words workers have continued to produce an ever larger quantity of goods per hour worked, yet for half a century there has been no accompanying increase in compensation. This means all that extra value produced by the hands of the working classes has gone to an ever wealthier and smaller pool of shareholders and employers.
This shift marked the beginning of the neoliberal era, an epoch which has subjected countries across the globe to rampant privatisation of the public sector, regimes of anti-worker free-trade and a decimation of the countervailing power of organised labour. One of the effects of this transformation that has been felt the most by everyday people is rising costs of living with increases in income no longer keeping pace.
In the UK this pattern has been particularly dramatic. Complete abandonment of an effective industrial strategy (contra Germany) resulted in deindustrialisation which has rendered our country one of the most regionally unequal in Europe. To compensate for wage stagnation, we’ve seen massive extensions of credit to keep demand up and economies afloat. The resulting picture is one where workers are becoming ever more indebted, as rents and the cost of living continue to rise, while an ever-greater share of profits continues to accrue to those on top. The engine of the contemporary British economy is debt-fuelled consumption.
The limits of the model were already reached in the last decade, and the pandemic has only served to accelerate its breakdown. At the beginning of the month, the Guardian reported that food aid charities have experienced an influx of middle-income individuals and families, who formerly hadn’t used foodbanks. This should be understood not as an exogenous shock, but rather as the acceleration of the long-term breakdown of a dysfunctional economic model which is now swelling the ranks of those experiencing food poverty.
The Destruction of Public Services and Civil Society
Working people have had to bare the brunt of the long-term failures of Britain’s political economy. Simultaneously, an assault on the pillars of the social democratic settlement has removed the capacity of public institutions and the social safety net to stop people falling into ever more dire circumstances. Returning to the summary from special rapporteur, Alston continued to write:
The social safety net has been badly damaged by drastic cuts to local authorities’ budgets, which have eliminated many social services, reduced policing services, closed libraries in record numbers, shrunk community and youth centres and sold off public spaces and buildings. The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.
When shocks like 2008 are visited upon us, the response of this country’s elite has been the abdication of responsibility for the wellbeing of the people. Rather than exacting penalties from those truly responsible, the Coalition Government responded to the crash by carrying out ideologically driven austerity. For example, the 2010 Office for Budget Responsibility report that led to a £36bn cut in social security was a dose to which the subsequent explosion in food banks was the inevitable response. Austerity, a cruel and completely unnecessary policy regime, is in large part to blame for present suffering.
Local welfare assistance was formerly used to great effect by local government, which naturally has a good knowledge of the best ways to help those most in need with precisely targeted relief. In 2010, this program received £250m of funding from the treasury. By 2019, it had been cut to just £40m, a reduction of 86%. According to Jane Corbett, Assistant Mayor of Liverpool & Mayoral Lead on Fairness & Tackling Poverty, “[t]he government’s long-term and systematic dismantling of council funding, particularly in the most disadvantaged areas of the country, [has] reduced local authorities abilities to respond to households in desperate need of support”. On the one hand, people are unable to make ends meet due to an unequal and exploitative economy. On the other hand, our collective, public institutions have been so undermined that it is no longer possible to intervene and prevent more people from slipping under.
A Collective, Political Solution
Given that food poverty arises from systemic, political failings, a systemic and political response is needed to solve the issue. People are suffering here and now, therefore it’s important to fight the fires that are currently burning with grassroots action. Simultaneously, systemic changes are needed to prevent these fires from occurring in the first place and this requires a longer-term strategy. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the principles of immediate, community action cannot be the motive force driving a larger scale transformation. The principle of action that can lead us out of this mess in the here and now and also the longer-term is solidarity.
War on Breakfast
In 1969, the US Black Panther Party initiated a grassroots ‘Free Breakfast for School Children’ program. A community run project, the program provided breakfast to school age children, many of whom had never had the privilege of a morning meal prior to its inception. The initiative, one of many social programs instigated by the party, became highly successful. At its height, the Panther’s were feeding over 10,000 children each day before they began school.
Success served to highlight the woeful inadequacies of federal programs designed to feed kids through educational institutions. This contrast was politically potent, so much so that the government undertook an active campaign to undermine the program which included police raids carried out at locations where food was being provided while children were eating. Free breakfast was understood as a political threat by the ruling class of the day. State repression disrupted the party’s work, but great political pressure had been exerted from the positive effects of feeding kids. As the community programs petered out, federal USDA free breakfast programs which previously had been little but underfunded gestures were prioritised by the Government and became widespread. This was a politically necessary response to the problem the Panthers had, through their work, so poignantly brought to light.
The grassroots of the NHS
In the early 20th century, healthcare was the preserve of the rich. Working class people had little to no access to medicine and often relied on meagre charitable provisions. State ‘hospitals’ functioned more to segregate the sick from the rest of society than to provide treatment. Working class communities began to organise themselves in the form of mutual aid, pooling resources to pay for doctors whose services were shared. Over time, these institutions grew, hiring full time doctors and employing out of work community members for administrative tasks. Notable examples include the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, in the hometown of Aneurin Bevan.
In Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski’s book ‘People’s Republic of Walmart’, the authors sum up experiments in mutual aid as follows: “The working class organised itself to deal collectively with a problem that affected every individual, but with which no individual could deal on their own. It was a socialised medicine in embryo.” These grassroots movements didn’t simply have introverted ambitions. Through unions, local government and political mobilisation, workers set the agenda for the creation of universal, public healthcare as the horizon of their collective ambitions. It was the achievements of community healthcare and the political power of an organised working class that drove the first national insurance schemes and from there a successive sequence of gains which culminated in the establishment of the NHS.
Not just charity, but solidarity
During the pandemic, communities across the country have shown astonishing willingness and capacity to prevent people going hungry. This effort is directly at odds with Tory ideology and the uncaring ethos described by Philip Alston. Not only can the workers’ mutual aid societies and the Black Panther Party’s breakfast program inspire a collective response to the crisis of food poverty in Britain today, they can confront right-wing ideology and point us towards a strategy for change. Labour MP Ian Byrne captured the essence of that strategy in the phrase “Solidarity, not charity”.
In the late 60s, the Black Panther’s organisation showed up federal programs and through its success demonstrated the existence of a real need in the community. Governmental negligence was made salient and ruling class legitimacy was challenged. That this was understood as a threat to authority is evident in the disproportionate violence of the response. However, social bonds were created by tackling the issue through cooperation and solidarity. Furthermore, the program enjoyed wide public support. As a consequence, for the state to neutralise the Panthers while maintaining credibility, it had to effectively take up the task of provisioning breakfast programs.
As a parallel, in the earlier half of the 20th century, working class mutual aid began to service a deep need for healthcare in the community. These efforts gave weight to the idea that a problem not solvable in the case of private individuals could be overcome through collective effort, with the sum becoming greater than the parts. Through institutions of the organised working class, such as the TUC, the Labour party and the Socialist Medical Association, these grassroots efforts took on and realised an ambitious political vision.
When we look at the mutual aid work of communities and organisations across the country over the past year, we see the reemergence of a dormant spirit in Britain which could follow in similar footsteps to the Panther’s program and the NHS. Due to the coronavirus’ effect on society, more and more people are needing to rely on collective provisions, such as food banks, on top of those from the hollowed out welfare state. Owing to the compounding scale of the problem, organisations have by necessity engaged in ever greater levels of collaboration in order to continue being able to provide food. We are all discovering that, in fact, society does exist.
The concept of solidarity differs from charity in that rather than understanding aid as a gift, from benefactor to beneficiary, there is a sense of equality, mutuality and common interest. Philanthropy has often functioned to obscure the exploitative relations which allowed the benefactor to accrue their wealth in the first place. In the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, members were not gifting resources to each other, but recognising their common class interest and the capacity to overcome collective problems by pooling resources. Solidarity is a paradigm that is imminently political, which recognises power imbalances and exploitation while pointing towards a new day.
David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ showed us that the elite will use the language of mutual aid and devolved responsibility as a cover for abdicating their own responsibility, imposing austerity and privatising public services. That Rashford’s campaign intentionally draws attention to governmental failure while simultaneously providing for immediate needs embodies the principles of solidarity. As evidenced by this week’s government U-turn, the approach appears to be working. It is vital that we imbue all our efforts in tackling food poverty with this spirit. We must continue fighting to reverse the destruction of the welfare state and recognise our mutual interests and societal capacities. All this while maintaining as our political horizon an economic model that is for the many, not the few.
Minor grammatical edits made on the 27th of March 2021