We saw a Labour victory in Wakefield of which we can all be proud last month. Activists and campaigners came from across Britain to listen to voters – lifelong Labour voters, people returning to Labour, people new to Labour – and hear about how their lives are being wrecked by a Prime Minister focused on protecting his own job rather than anyone else’s. And while we all know what’s happening, hearing about it at door after door, for day after day, really brings it home.
The cost-of-living crisis is piling misery on families in our country. Energy prices soaring, petrol and diesel through the roof, and now so many family essentials, from food to childcare, are piling pressure on family budgets. All these pressures don’t just add up – they multiply one another. Jack Monroe, who has done so much to draw attention to how food prices don’t rise evenly with some of the cheapest food seeing the fastest rises, has also pointed to the terrifying rise in requests at food banks for food that can be eaten cold. Tens of thousands of families aren’t just choosing between heating and eating – they’re taking the heating out of eating.
And while all these prices soar, it’s not as if family finances are keeping pace. Real wages have fallen to almost £300 lower than they were 15 years ago. The Conservatives have reached for the pockets of working people again and again to meet the costs of government economic failure. Income tax thresholds frozen. Council tax up. National Insurance up. Universal Credit slashed. Time and again, we see this government making choices about spending and choices on taxes that mean reaching for the pockets of working people. So, families have less money to pay for food that’s more expensive. It’s not sustainable, and something has to give. Right now, what’s being squeezed is families’ living standards – what they eat, if they can take their kids out. When winter comes, it’ll be their heating too.
So I can understand why we’re seeing campaigns for a ‘right to food’, from unions and pressure groups alike. But there’s a note of caution to sound. As our membership cards remind us all, democratic socialism is about power, wealth and opportunity. As Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson once put it, it would be “totally inadequate – the reverse of our socialism – to live in a society where many of us had jobs, sufficient food, warm houses, free hot meals for our kids, and free sanitary products, but didn’t have money to spend as we saw fit on anything else. Equality in a free society is about power, not goods”.
Right now, benefits – which we all need at different stages of our lives from child support to pensions – simply aren’t enough to cover the costs families face. I was genuinely taken aback when the Tories chose to slash Universal Credit by £20 a week last year. But that doesn’t make me think the government should just be guaranteeing food, making free school meals universal.
I want to see more money in parent’s pockets so they can choose the food and supplies that are right for their kids. I want a decent standard of living for everyone, not soup kitchens and food banks used as an excuse to keep benefits low. That’s exactly why the Tories like them – it’s everything that’s worst about victorian notions of what ‘the poor’ should be spending their money on, and whether people like us can be trusted to make decisions for ourselves. The right people to make choices about what families eat are families themselves, and every family deserves the financial security to be able to make those choices.
Advocates of a ‘right to food’ often point to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”.
Pulling food out of that to stand alone means reducing our ambition for our people and our country, not extending it. Prisoners are guaranteed food – the rest of us should have the power to exercise freedom of choice. We need to lift our eyes to the prize, not make do with hot meals. We need, as it says on our membership cards, to build a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe and where we live together freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.