Notes From the Margins…

Hunger is Political

  • December 09, 2014
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The government has adopted a strikingly conciliatory pose in response to yesterday’s report from the All Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom.  The hapless Lady Jenkin may have expressed what many Tories secretly believe when she suggested that hunger in the UK is all due to the inept culinary and budgetary practices of the feckless underclass, but she rapidly pulled back from it

Even Ian Duncan-Smith’s Department of Work and Pensions, which once attacked food banks back in 2010, has promised to consider some of the report’s recommendations.

This willingness to go into listening mode might be a seasonal aberration.     Maybe the smell of mince pies and mulled wine, coupled with Xmas carols and the Band Aid song, have filled Lord Snooty and His Pals with a sudden concern for those less fortunate than themselves – a category which admittedly includes an awful lot of people.   But it’s far more likely due to the fact the Church of England has put its weight behind the report, and the government doesn’t want to risk an open rift with the church with an election coming up next year, not when Osborne’s latest gift to the nation has already drawn unwelcome comparisons with the 1930s.

The government’s apparent willingness to engage with the report is also due to the conciliatory approach of its authors and supporters. The Archbishop of Canterbury warned against using the report to score ‘political points’.   In the forward the Bishop of Truro Tim Thornton is at pains to avoid any political analysis of the dire phenomenon that the report describes.

Bishop Thornton rightly praises the people who have established food banks, who represent ‘the best aspects of human nature’.   He then rather delicately finds ‘evidence of some of the worst aspects of human nature, in that there are people men, women and children in this country who are going hungry’, while simultaneously insisting that:

We also want to avoid the easy mistake made by reports such as this which all too easily “blame” some groups and point the finger at particular institutions.

Such reticence is not entirely surprising – it is an all party report after all.   But the rest of us would do well to ignore this recommendation and remove those scare marks from the word ‘blame’.

We are after all, talking about a report which concludes that nearly a million people were fed at food banks in 2013/14, compared with 128, 697 the previous year, and this in one of the richest countries on earth. This staggering increase is due to a number of factors, that include rising food and energy prices, coupled with falling or stagnating wages, but as the report itself concludes, the majority of people using food banks have done so as a result of punitive benefit sanctions which have left them without money to buy food or pay their bills.

Contrary to what the church may think, we can and should ‘point the finger at particular institutions’ for this outcome, because it’s all very well praising food bank volunteers for their generosity and humanity, but hunger in the UK is the result of institutionalized inhumanity.       It is rooted in the ruthless sanctions regime introduced by Lord Snooty and His Pals in order to punish the poor for their poverty and drive the unemployed into low-waged, insecure jobs that are increasingly forcing even people who are in work to access food banks.

It stems from rising energy prices introduced by private companies and corporations that the government cannot even bring itself to regulate, let alone nationalize. If that isn’t ‘political’ then I don’t know what is.   And in its attempt to avoid and gloss over the political causes and context behind this phenomenon, the All Party Report risks institutionalizing the very situation it condemns.

Cameron may praise food banks as an expression of his ‘big society’, but his approval undoubtedly has more to do with the recognition that food banks can actually facilitate the Tory agenda of stripping back the state and privatising its various functions, by replacing statutary assistance and welfare support with charity.     This is why the rightwing economist on Channel 4 News was also praising food banks yesterday.

To point this is out is not to disparage the noble work of the volunteers and organizations that are now feeding people across the country.   But in calling for the state to effectively ‘nationalize’ and coordinate the work of food banks, the All Party Report risks transforming a temporary response to a social emergency into a permanent support system that will suit the government very well.

Because charity is all well and good, but it is far better to have a society that doesn’t need to rely on voluntary donations to feed its population – and a state that provides the unemployed and the poor with something more than cans of beans and cereal packets.

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  1. Paul Seligman (@PaulMSeligman)

    9th Dec 2014 - 7:48 pm

    I don’t disagree. But I think there was a nugget of truth in Baroness Jenkin’s words, however clumsily expressed.

    In the supermarket’s and local shops, I see plenty of people buying really expensive alternatives to basics. If you afford it, and don’t mind about the effect on your health of some of these processed foods, that’s fine.

    But if you are poor – and plenty of the people don’t look that well off (I live in a quite average working class neighbourhood) – these choices are strange. Some can perhaps be explained by having no time – why would anyone with little money otherwise buy prepared vegetables or bags of salad?

    But to take Baroness Jenkin’s example, packs of ‘instant oats’ cost at least 4 times a portion more than traditional porridge oats, and sometimes 10 times more. Plus more packaging. And they don’t cook much quicker either!

    We can see it’s not just food either when people without much money consider shower gel and numerous other bath preparations as an essential . Soap is probably twenty times cheaper than any gel product. You can get four bars of very good soap from Asda for 30p. (Other supermarkets are available). As for fabric conditioner…. And all those big ticket items that were fought over on Black Friday…

    I don’t blame the shoppers (poor or not) for this. And although expressed clumsily, I don’t think Baroness J was either. It’s an outcome of our commercial age, where marketing creates unnecessary ‘needs’. But also, as the Baroness said, better education is needed in basic cooking, ‘housekeeping’ and money management.

    If the better off consumed less, the planet would be better off as well. But that would threaten ‘economic growth’.

    • Paul Seligman (@PaulMSeligman)

      9th Dec 2014 - 8:16 pm

      apologies for a few typos/punctuation errors, typed quickly!

      • Matt

        11th Dec 2014 - 9:13 pm

        Well Paul, you know I can’t stand for typos and punctuations errors, don’t you?!!!

    • Matt

      11th Dec 2014 - 9:18 pm

      Fair points Paul, though I think you’re being a little too charitable about Jenkins. After all we’ve heard this ‘the poor don’t know how to be poor’ a lot from the Tories, haven’t we?

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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