Over the past few months, there has been a steady flow of stories about the rise in the number of foodbanks in Britain. Anyone reading beyond the first line of any of these articles will be aware that a large part of the rise appears to be due to working people no longer being able to make ends meet. While David Cameron, George Osborne and an unpleasantness of other Tory MPs might welcome this as a symbol of the Big Society; the rise in foodbanks sums up everything that is wrong with Cameron’s Britain. It captures the essence of why Osborne was booed at the Paralympics despite the positive feeling of the 2012 games. Due to government policies many Britons are broke, but Britain is not yet broken.
The past four years of recession has chipped away at what people earn. Wages have been frozen or cut while prices continue to rise. The changes and cuts to tax credits and benefits are adding more pain to families and mean many more people can no longer afford to feed themselves.
We should be clear that food poverty isn’t really just about food. It is about poverty. In the same way as fuel poverty is less about the fuel than the ability to buy it. Adding other words to preface the word ‘poverty’ serves somehow to soften the word ‘poverty’, but simultaneously illustrates the choices people have to make when they don’t have enough money. Do you pay your fuel bill or buy food? Do you pay your rent or skip a payment on the interest on an unpaid credit card or payday loan bill?
The debate we have as a party – which I hope will form part of the debate at this year’s Labour Party conference – has to be about how ensure a future Labour government will move beyond policies that are essentially no more than sticking plasters. We need to deal with the cause and not the symptoms. We have to be clear how we are going to deal with 21st century poverty. We have to find a way to avoid the need for food-banks, breakfast clubs and teachers taking in food for children who regularly go to school hungry. We need sustainable solutions. Dare I say it – we need a more equal society.
We should worry when people start quoting George Orwell to describe today’s Britain. Over the past few weeks as I have been talking to people about food poverty in London, a number have quoted the same section of Down and out in Paris and London to me. If you missed out on Orwell, or have got a bit rusty, read the book and discover the quote yourself. In the meantime, here’s an alternative Orwell quote from The Road to Wigan Pier:
“The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.”
There will always be decent people who will help others in a worse situation than themselves by setting up food-banks and other charitable endeavours. However, a situation in which people cannot earn enough money to feed themselves and their children, with them going to school (and bed) hungry or malnourished is fundamentally wrong. If we fail to come up with a solution that doesn’t change the current system for the better, a solution that creates work and ensures that work pays enough to live on, it will be us not his unpopular namesake that Orwell would be pointing his finger at.
Fiona Twycross is a Labour member of the London Assembly