Universal free school meals for primary school children is a popular, affordable, and easy-to-implement policy that Labour could roll out without breaking much of a sweat within the first hundred days of the next UK Labour Government.

Free school meals, and the campaigns around them spearheaded by the likes of Marcus Rashford, were one of many running sores that helped seep away confidence in Boris Johnson’s premiership while simultaneously exposing the bizarre decision-making at the fore in Rishi Sunak’s treasury. The issue has a high degree of emotional salience with the public and is one of the significant u-turns of the past few years that has stuck in the collective memory.

Naturally, with all of this considered, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has now ruled out bringing in universal free school meals once in Government.

The free school meals (FSM) system is typical of the British welfare state in that a myriad of conditions must be fulfilled and requisite hoops jumped through before a child can receive their school lunches for free. Aside from being a child’s first introduction to the joys of British bureaucracy, it also introduces children to classism endemic in British society, where those in receipt of benefits are often maligned for it. I am sure I am not alone in remembering the stigma of being in a separate queue and free school meals tokens, nor the abuse and othering that accompanied them from an early age. That because my parent was poor, I was somehow less. 

Combine this picture with the landscape of Multi Academy Trusts increasingly encouraged to look and sound like the school that places pupils in isolation if their parents fail to make lunch payments, and it’s not hard to see why universal free school meals is in urgent need of enactment beyond how it pulls at would-be Labour voters’ heartstrings.

How daft this development is, given the comparatively meagre amounts of money involved and the general public mood, is compounded by the fact that the Labour Party in London has made this commitment and so has the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff Bay. Neither of which have remotely the kind of monetary freedom Keir Starmer will have as Prime Minister. 

Besides the normal criticisms that Welsh Labour supporters have of the UK Labour Party not learning from the one Labour Party in the United Kingdom that actually consistently wins elections, the decision also speaks to one of the larger fissures in place between the UK and Welsh Labour Parties regarding provision of benefits and services.

As the adage of progressive universalism goes, services that are solely for poor people inevitably become poor services. This is part of the issue with free school meals as they currently exist, and why ‘affordability’ arguments about sums only totalling a few million here or there take hold. It’s also why under the last Labour Government Jamie Oliver plied his trade railing against low quality food and outlawing turkey twizzlers. 

The service provided for poor people and their children as it stands is a poor service, but giving a greater portion of British society a stake in its success means that more money can be put into it and more ambition about the programme’s aims can be applied. This is good because in practice it means that the children of poor parents no longer have to put up with a service designed to exclude as many people as possible. It would also mean parents were less likely to find themselves bearing the brunt of the most immediate of budget squeezes because it will become less politically viable to do so. 

This is not the principal reason that free school meals should be universal however. Abby, a Catering Manager at a primary school in Manchester said “In the areas of the poorest children that can be the only meal they get. Some children are with us from eight o’clock in the morning and they have their breakfast with us, and their lunch with us, and when they go home they don’t have anything else.” Abby estimated that for around twenty percent of children in her school on free school meals, the breakfast and lunch provided in school were the only meals they’d get that day. 

Without universal provision, children inevitably fall through the cracks of the FSM system. Abby explained what her staff do in that situation: 

If a child comes in with a packed lunch, and they haven’t got much food or the food they’ve got isn’t substantial or suitable for them, the lunchtime organisers will bring them to us and we’ll then feed them. Our headmistress is very good, the child has to eat regardless…We have kids at the breakfast club, they’re eating seven pieces of toast and they’re coming in for lunch wanting more and seconds again for the lunch. We know we have hungry children, we’ve had the office come to us and say these ‘two children in whatever year it is, you need to make sure they are given as much food as they want’, if they come wanting extra just give it to them because they don’t get it at home. We do take care of the ones we know about. 

This is a feature of means testing, not a bug, and one any Labour government serious about eradicating child poverty should wish to remedy on day one of government. Children should not have to rely on the creativity of kitchen staff to ensure they have access to food. 

As well as this, an enterprising and forward-thinking Labour Government might use this as a renewed opportunity to rethink how healthy eating is broached within schools as we stare down the barrel of rising obesity rates. With a greater focus on what children of all backgrounds are eating at lunchtime being leveraged into conversations about meals being prepared at home and the higher cost of eating healthily – if they learned anything from New Labour, they would also be wise to avoid egotistical celebrity chefs when it comes to policy making.

For Abby, making free school meals universal is a no brainer: 

It would also make a difference in the workforce, because to add those extra children into the meals you would have to add that extra staff to help with the influx, which would then create more jobs. Which are the jobs you need because school time jobs, the term time ones, you’ve got a lot of people who would need those jobs – they’re ideal for working parents. 

It should be clear to all at this point that the software update Starmer’s leadership received after his crisis of self in the Hartlepool by-election has fully re-oriented the project. It would be prudent to anticipate that what little promises remain unbroken are likely to be watered down to the point of inconsequence or forgotten altogether.

Few would argue that Starmer’s first year as leader wasn’t seriously lacking in discipline or vision. Who could be forgiven for not really feeling inspired by ‘British Recovery Bonds’ after all? But the resultant project, cooked up largely on vibes from ‘red wall’ focus groups as well as the perceived intellectual authority of career neoliberals, finds itself terminally afraid of the comment pages of the Times and Telegraph.

As a result, Labour will sacrifice any policy or project, regardless of merit, on the mythical altar of ‘fiscal credibility’. This farce drew into sharp focus when in the name of fiscal credibility, Labour watered down its major green infrastructure investment, which up until now was earmarked as the keystone pledge of the next Labour Government. 

Universal free school meals is a policy with no downsides and a considerable amount of upsides. Not only would Labour be investing in schools, they’d be making a statement on how they would approach child poverty. The Labour Party ruling out the implementation of universal free school meals is the sign that their caution has turned to cowardice. This cowardice, if left unchecked, will see Labour enter government with a huge mandate, but with no ambition to do anything meaningful with it. Just as there is no room for balanced budgets on a dead planet, there is no such thing as a progressive government that allows children to go hungry.