This week the UK parliament debated foodbanks. On Facebook and Twitter this proved to be a big deal but on the main news outlets it never got a mention. So what’s gone wrong?
We need to remember the nature of the debate. It was one of 17 occasions in this parliamentary session that the Labour party, as the official opposition, got time to debate their motions. These are occasions when the opposition tries to score points over the government or embarrass them on some policy detail; and at the end of the debate there is a vote along party lines (opposition vote one way, government the other). This week was no different; the relevant government ministers were forced to appear in the commons to respond, try to score some political points of their own without making a commitment they might regret.
Accordingly the main news outlets didn’t think it was newsworthy. It wasn’t, except for it being an example of how parliamentary tactics and politics trump serious policy issues.
This opposition motion was cleverly chosen because it was the result of a public petition, which meant there were people who were passionate about it. They were therefore appalled by the way the issue was treated in the commons, and by the government in particular. What they hoped was a chance to debate a serious issue had been chosen by the Opposition as a stick to goad the government. No doubt there will be some in politics who are happy with this, because they knew it was going to happen and want to use it to reinforce the narrative that the government doesn’t care about poor people.
But behind the unedifying party politics, there are some real problems and the government needs to pay attention to them.
1. The benefits system makes claimants feel like criminals, it takes too long to support people who are in need, creating crisis situations. Public policy is always a blunt instrument, but the aim of reducing fraud harms the vast majority of claimants who find themselves in difficulty. There will always be those who know how to milk the system, but the overwhelming majority of people receiving benefit simply need help and don’t have the knowledge, energy or skills to fight the system.
2. The debate about poverty is clouded by definitions; most use definitions based on relative rather than absolute poverty. There is an intelligent debate to be had about the country’s ability to afford welfare when linked to measures of relative poverty, if the Conservative Party had the guts to do it, but there is no excuse for levels of absolute poverty where people can’t afford food or basic housing and the relevant ministers need to get a grip. There are difficulties here, particularly around the cost of housing, which are linked to other policy issues but if the department of Work and Pensions showed the same zeal for tackling poverty as it does for creating Universal Credit they could go a long way to solving the worst cases.
3. Political parties are woefully bad at explaining public policy choices and the issues behind them. None of them want to spell out the downsides or to debate how true the various assumptions are, so whenever their party gets into power people are disappointed. The result is people distrust politicians because they never do what they say and don’t seem to have any principles. When as this week, we see debates where MPs vote for party motions rather than about principles, most voters think MP's live in a different (incomprehensible) world. Whatever your political persuasion it is hard to have confidence in the current system; the desire for radical change will therefore keep growing.
I agree with about half of this. Of course Labour were acting politically, but there were no complaints (that I heard) from the core campaigners about either the motion proposed or the presentation of it by the opposition front bench; it seems the people – including Jack Monroe, CAP, the Trussell Trust, … – felt their concerns were being adequately represented by the motion on the order paper, and by the way it was proposed by the opposition front bench. By contrast, there was considerable anger amongst the same group of people with the government’s response. (I’m also very unsure about your claim that opposition day debates are generally not reported in the media; I don’t have any figures, but that is certainly not my impression/recollection.)
Of course, the opposition has it easy on an issue like this; the job of opposition is to oppose, to point out what’s wrong, which they did here with some effectiveness and pathos. The government always has a harder time, having either to defend the status quo, or to admit something is wrong, whilst trying to shift blame and propose solutions. That said, I happened to see the entire debate (a sick child meant I had to come home from work early, and couldn’t do anything more serious than watching TV…); the government’s performance was, in sheerly political terms, extraordinarily poor. On the one hand, they had seemingly not decided what their line was; sometimes, they offered the ‘its OK that we have foodbanks’ line – defending the status quo; sometimes they tried to say that food poverty was the fault of the previous government. Esther McVey herself sounded confused; never mind her backbenchers.
The net result – combined with numbers of MPs present; the two ministers leaving quite quickly, and so on – was a distinct impression for anyone watching that the government simply did not care much about this issue; even Emperor Nero spotted that you need to be seen to care when your people are going hungry… There was, I sensed, genuine anger amongst campaigners at this – and there were a number of Labour politicians who couldn’t believe their luck; this was a huge own goal politically by the government, which will cause lasting damage (check out the letter to IDS from two school kids, who watched the debate and saw him leave, in the Mirror today, demanding that he meet with the Trussell Trust – this is tabloid gold, and the sort of story that will stick in many minds…)
What would a good response from the government have looked like? A clear and unequivocal acknowledgement that food poverty is unacceptable in modern Britain; a promise to rapidly release the delayed report into the causes of food poverty (even better, releasing the report before the debate); a promise to meet with charity representatives to explore how the expertise and energy of the charities could better integrate with government provision, &c. Of course, this could (politically should) have been combined with a strong narrative claiming that food poverty is a direct result of the economic failures of the previous administration…
Why did they not do this? Well, the present government has unfortunately proved repeatedly that it is politically incompetent, and it may be that there is no more explanation needed than that. More significantly, however, there was a clear political problem, in that the Conservative political narrative is presently largely constructed on a ‘strivers vs skivers’ rhetoric (the only other significant line is about economic competence, but this is definitely the minor theme at present), and the foodbank story cannot be shaped to fit that; further, every piece of evidence available suggests that the biggest single driver of increase in food poverty has been a series of changes to the ‘welfare’ (sic, ‘social security’) system, most noticeably the bedroom tax. Given this, the assumption that the delayed report is delayed because it is politically embarrassing is really rather too easy to make…
Thanks for your comments.