For nearly a year now, Marcus Rashford has been making headlines as one of the UK’s most effective – and unlikely – campaigners. Since joining forces with food charity FareShare last March, the 23-year-old footballer has fought non-stop for constructive measures to be taken against child hunger and poverty. The last eleven months have seen him relentlessly putting pressure on Boris Johnson’s government, forcing them to address their failings on several occasions.
From the outset, Rashford has brought his working-class background to the forefront of his campaigning. In an open letter to MPs published in June, he makes clear that his own lived experience of child poverty is his primary motivation. “Political affiliations aside” he writes, “can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?”
How can you argue with that? His simple message transcends class and political barriers, and can surely speak to the humanity in all people. This is what makes him so effective. The young footballer has proven what change can be affected when just one working-class story is allowed into the mainstream. But to see systemic change, we need to tackle the political exclusion that makes Rashford an outlier in the first place.
While Marcus Rashford’s above-and-beyond campaigning is admirable, feeding hungry children is not his job. This government is a democratically elected one, it should not have to be forced to work for its people. Political exclusion is a systemic issue. The social background of our politicians is – and has always been – disproportionately middle-class in comparison to that of the larger population.
Of all Conservative MPs, 41 per cent are privately-educated, along with 65 per cent of the cabinet. Only 7 per cent of the country share this educational background. By comparison, nine in ten of the UK’s children attend state-funded schools, and almost a third are living in poverty. Labour MPs are much more representative with only 14 per cent being privately-educated, but are still not truly reflective.
This is one explanation for the apathy: members of this government are simply ignorant to the reality. Not sharing the lived experience of working-class people, our politicians don’t appreciate the severity of the situation. To many of them these are academic concerns, not practical realities. They don’t know what it’s like to barely make ends meet, to struggle to feed your children and yourself, to have to rely on the frustratingly complicated welfare system.
This dissonance is a problem. It allows the government, with a clear conscience, to make Machiavellian decisions which weigh up economic prosperity against feeding starving children. This bluster falls flat when compared to Marcus Rashford’s heartfelt campaigning. Anyone who understands his story would agree, there is no justifiable amount of child poverty.
So we should not accept the Conservatives inaction as a result of unawareness. In fact, this is Johnson’s go-to fallback. At the PMQs following the food parcel dispute, the Prime Minister even said he was “grateful” to Rashford who “highlighted the issue.” He then tried to turn this into an attack on Keir Starmer’s leadership, a lesson in spin if ever there was one.
Even after all the negative publicity, the government is still denying children free school meals over February half-term and legislating to cut Universal Credit. This is despite their u-turns on halting free school meals in June and November, as well as the recent food parcel debacle. If you needed any more proof that their apathy is not accidental, here it is.
I’ve spoken to several parents who were receiving food parcels in my home town of Stafford in the West Midlands. The consensus is that they were never very good, but not as pitiful as the ones recently shared on social media. Generally, they could be costed at around ten or eleven pounds (£15 being the stated weekly value). Thanks to Marcus Rashford they are now receiving food vouchers for the foreseeable future.
However, the issue goes beyond getting value for money. It’s about being denied the agency to decide what you can feed your children. Like so many facets of state support from Universal Credit to disability benefits, dehumanisation is built in. A maze of bureaucracy involving the individual school, local council and private contractor means it is unclear who parents can complain to. Complaints not being invited anyway, of course.
You cannot even entertain the usual excuse of fiscal responsibility. This system sees private companies contracted to deliver £30 worth of food, at additional cost, rather than this money just being given directly to parents. These parents were denied vouchers, the Conservative logic goes, because they cannot be relied upon to make intelligent nutritional choices. Middle-class parents on the other hand, are naturally trustworthy by virtue of their wealth. It’s a baffling ideology, but it makes sense for this government. As far as Conservatives are concerned, the British meritocracy is in full working order. If people aren’t well off, they haven’t earned the right to be.
Through this misleading ideology, the political establishment has created a bogeyman of the working-class parent. They are painted as indolent, scrounging and unintelligent, an idea perpetuated by the media.
Marcus Rashford shows this pernicious narrative for the falsehood that it is. He openly discusses how difficult it was for his mother to raise him, contrary to the argument that poor parents are irresponsible for having children. “That same finger could have been pointed at my mum” he wrote in June, “yet I grew up in a loving and caring environment.”
In one fell swoop, the sustained vitriolic campaign against working-class parents is exposed by one lad who simply understands how hard it really is. Far from being just a single-issue campaigner, Marcus Rashford is mainstreaming working-class solidarity in an unprecedented way.
Returning to Stafford: ask yourself what political power parents in towns like this have. Perhaps a possible recourse could be to write to their MP. That would be Theo Clarke, a new Conservative member who, along with most of her peers, voted against extending free school meals. She is also privately educated like her uncle by marriage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and spent much of her early career in New York. So, no help to be found there. By comparison, Stafford’s 2017 Labour candidate grew up in Stafford, attending the town’s state-funded schools as a child.
This is just a snapshot of the systemic issue. We need to demand that all parties put up candidates who are reflective of the area they will potentially represent. I’d advise all those who are party members, on either side, to consider this problem. Make clear to your party that it will be a major factor in your voting decision.
Marcus Rashford is a credit to the country. This is a man who understands. Imagine if we had a Prime Minister like that. A Prime Minister who knew how severely hunger can affect a child’s education; who knew how hard parents work to provide for their children, falling short due to a system that’s rigged against them. We have the power to make it happen.