Poverty is stalking the streets of Britain – and that’s the big issue the people in charge continue to duck
It won’t be Boris Johnson, but whoever the new prime minister turns out to be, they will have been dragged into office by “economic orthodoxy” and its henchmen. Their mandate is pre-written in the data you have been deluged with about the impact of unfunded tax cuts, from the depreciation of the pound to rises in interest rates, and the untenable upward effect this has had on mortgages and rents. The charts have spoken – an ideological experiment has gone terribly wrong and must be reversed.
But it is a tale of two crises, and only one is being told. Attracting far less fanfare is another set of statistics about cold and hunger. More than a million people are expected to be pushed into poverty this winter. Their slide into deprivation will test an informal support network already stretched to its limit. Last week, the food bank charity the Trussell Trust launched an emergency appeal for donations because need for food banks has now outstripped donations. Charities like this, private citizens and schools are mobilising to bridge the gap.
The hole is too large to plug. Half of all primary schools in England are trying to feed children in poverty who are ineligible for free school meals because their parents’ income does not meet the threshold. But there are 800,000 of them . It can be hard sometimes to grasp the scale of the problem through bare statistics, but vivid and haunting details can flesh them out. Children are eating school rubbers to line their stomachs and dull the ache and nausea of hunger. Others are bringing in empty lunchboxes then pretending to dine on their phantom food away from classmates, too ashamed to reveal that they have nothing to eat.
If these children’s families can’t afford to eat, they definitely can’t afford to keep warm as winter approaches and energy prices rocket. How can children expect to learn with their minds impaired by hunger and cold? Over the past year, reading ability among seven-year-olds from poor families fell at double the rate of those from affluent families, their future prospects receding before they have even begun.
But my goodness, the scenes in Westminster! Kwasi Kwarteng sacked on a plane, Suella Braverman gone for a data breach, reported manhandling, jostling and shouting outside the voting lobby. And if that wasn’t already enough to drown out the rumble of tummies and chattering of teeth, Liz Truss threw in the towel, kicking off another attention-sucking vortex of new leadership speculation and horse-trading.
“I worry,” Naomi Duncan, chief executive of Chefs in Schools , told me, two hours after Truss resigned, “that the ongoing political turmoil will divert attention.” The solution for her is simple: to give one meal a day to all children based on need, not an income calculation that has long since ceased to be relevant.
It does sound simple, doesn’t it? But the sort of government that tackles poverty, hunger and cold is not the government anyone who matters is clamouring for. As the emergency intensifies, politicians and opinion makers are calling not for a firefighter to treat this as the crisis it truly is, but for a “grownup” to make those economic charts read better.
“The grownups are back,” declared Liam Fox , after Jeremy Hunt and Penny Mordaunt’s performance at the dispatch box last week. “If Truss cannot quickly sort herself out,” the Sun (of all papers) told us, ‘“the grownups need to get in a room” and “agree a peaceful transition to a sensible figure”. This trope exemplifies the detachment of both Westminster and Westminster watchers. As the country enters into the winter crisis proper, those at the top are looking for a leader with unspecified technocratic skills who, like a contracted management consultant, will be able to “stabilise” UK plc. It’s not the mouths of children that need feeding, but the markets.
If this new leader must have an ideology, it should be one that aligns with the aim of “fiscal responsibility”, itself a byword for reduced state spending. They must “look like a leader”, and enact whatever callous cuts they have to, preferably while exhibiting suitable regret at having to make “difficult decisions”. The result of this settlement is a chilling absence of politicians able to articulate the exceptional pain the public is going through. Also absent are any policies that would tackle the cost of living and energy emergency through higher taxes on the wealthy, or an economic stabilisation agenda that addresses the goals not only of those who want to prosper, but those who need to survive.
Even among a fuming opposition there is a sort of bloodless anger. “The damage to mortgages and bills has been done,” tweeted Keir Starmer as if the economic impact is being felt by pieces of paper rather than people. It seems everyone has understood that injecting feeling and channelling the fear and deprivation that stalks people every day disqualifies you from being taken seriously as a politician. The “adult” approach seems to be keeping the markets happy and achieving abstract “growth”, rather than also prioritising the security of those so on the margins they cannot benefit from that growth; those who will suffer most when the next round of soberly dictated cuts arrive.
To include in your economic vision the importance of benefits, subsidies or improvements to public services to the wellbeing of those not able to fully participate in the housing or job market is somehow outside the parameters of acceptable politics.
But it is staying in that lane of acceptable politics that has resulted in our political and social crises. The delusion is that if we try just one more time with someone like Rishi Sunak, a man who flat out complained of funding being “ shoved into deprived areas ”, the right or right of centre will crack it. Despite the fact that this is the tribe which over the past two decades pursued the deregulation agenda of big businesses, allowed working conditions and wages to be run into the ground, slashed benefits, and failed to invest any money saved from painful cuts into, to take just one example, any future-proofing green energy that would have mitigated this winter crisis.
I wonder, even with attention constantly yanked back to the Westminster spectacle, just how many more chances the grownups can get away with when every day another adult or child starts to go without food, or another family bundle themselves up at night instead of putting the heating on. Just how much longer can people put up with a consensus that placates the financial system with an “acceptable” number of losers? Grownup politics is literally that: disregarding those who do not “matter”, considering the economically marginalised simply as collateral damage, excluding their passions from the cool halls of power and cultivating resignation to ever more suffering. But with their numbers rising and their pain intensifying, that may be about to become an impossible task.