The very last thing the UK needs is a more ‘mature’ policy. This is what got us into this mess | Nesrine Malik
IIt won’t be Boris Johnson, but whoever the new Prime Minister is, he will have been dragged into power by ‘economic orthodoxy’ and his cronies. Their mandate is pre-written in the data that has overwhelmed you on the impact of unfunded tax cuts, from the depreciation of the pound to interest rate hikes, and the unsustainable upward effect that has had on mortgages and rents. The charts have spoken – an ideological experiment gone horribly wrong and must be reversed.
But this is the story of two crises, and only one is told. Attracting much less fanfare is another set of Cold and Hunger stats. It is expected that more than one million people will be pushed into poverty This winter. Their slide into deprivation will test an already strained informal support network. Last week the food bank charity Trussell Trust made an emergency call for donations because the need for food banks has now exceeded donations. Charities like this, private citizens and schools are stepping up to bridge the gap.
The hole is too big to be plugged. Half of all primary schools in England try to feed poor children who are not eligible for free school meals because their parents’ incomes do not meet the threshold. But there is 800,000 of them. It can sometimes be difficult to grasp the magnitude of the problem with simple statistics, but startling and haunting details can flesh them out. The children are eat gummies at school to line their stomachs and dull the pains and nausea of hunger. Others bring in empty lunch boxes and then pretend to eat their ghost food away from their classmates, too ashamed to reveal they have nothing to eat.
If the families of these children cannot afford to eat, they certainly cannot afford to keep warm as winter approaches and energy prices soar. How can children expect to learn with their spirits weakened by hunger and cold? Over the past year, the reading ability of seven-year-olds from poor families fell at double the rate of those from well-to-do families, their future prospects dwindling before they even started.
But my God, the Westminster scenes! Kwasi Kwarteng sacked on plane, Suella Braverman left for data breach, reported bullying, shoving and shouting outside the polling hall. And if that wasn’t already enough to drown out the rumbling of stomachs and the chattering of teeth, Liz Truss threw in the towel, setting off another attention-grabbing vortex of new leadership speculation and haggling.
“I worry,” Naomi Duncan, chief executive of Cooks in schools, told me, two hours after Truss resigned, “that ongoing political unrest will distract.” The solution for her is simple: give all children one meal a day based on need, not an income calculation that has long since ceased to be relevant.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But the kind of government that tackles poverty, hunger and cold is not the government that those who matter want. As the emergency escalates, politicians and opinion makers aren’t calling in a firefighter to treat this crisis like the crisis it really is, but an “adult” to make those economic charts read better.
“The greats are back” said Liam Fox, following Jeremy Hunt and Penny Mordaunt’s performance at the Shipping Box last week. “If Truss can’t get by quickly,” the Sun (of all newspapers) told us, “adults need to come into a room” and “agree on a peaceful transition to a sane figure.” This trope exemplifies the detachment of watchers from Westminster and Westminster. As the country enters the winter crisis proper, executives are looking for a leader with unspecified technocratic skills who, like a contracted management consultant, will be able to ‘stabilize’ UK plc. It is not children’s mouths that need food, but markets.
If this new leader is to have an ideology, it should be one that aligns with the goal of “fiscal responsibility,” itself synonymous with cutting state spending. They should “look like a leader” and embrace whatever ruthless cuts they have to, preferably while showing appropriate regret at having to make “tough decisions.” The result of this settlement is a frightening absence of politicians able to voice the exceptional pain the public is going through. Also missing is any policy that would tackle the cost of living and the energy emergency by raising taxes on the rich, or an economic stabilization program that meets the goals not only of those who want to prosper, but also of those who need to survive.
Even among furious opposition, there is a kind of bloodless anger. “Damage to mortgages and bills has been done,” Keir Starmer tweeted as if the economic impact was felt by pieces of paper rather than people. It seems everyone has understood that injecting feelings and channeling the fear and deprivation that stalks people every day disqualifies you from being taken seriously as a politician. The ‘adult’ approach seems to keep markets happy and achieve abstract ‘growth’, rather than also prioritizing the safety of those who are so marginalized that they cannot benefit from that growth; those who will suffer the most when the next round of soberly dictated cuts arrive.
Including in your economic vision the importance of benefits, subsidies or improvements in public services for the well-being of those who are unable to participate fully in the housing or labor market is somewhat outside the parameters acceptable policy.
But it is the fact of staying on this path of acceptable politics that has led to our political and social crises. The illusion is that if we just try one more time with someone like Rishi Sunak, a man who complains outright about funding being “pushed into underprivileged neighborhoods”, the right or the right of the center will make it crack. Despite being the tribe that over the past two decades has pursued the agenda of big business deregulation, allowed working conditions and wages to be wiped out, slashed benefits and has not invested the money saved from painful cuts in, to name just one example, any perennial green energy that would have alleviated this winter crisis.
I wonder, even if attention is constantly drawn back to the spectacle of Westminster, how much of a chance can adults still get away with it when every day another adult or child starts starving themselves, or another family snuggles up at night instead of putting the heat on. How much longer can people endure a consensus that appeases the financial system with an “acceptable” number of losers? Adult politics is literally this: ignoring those who “don’t matter,” viewing the economically marginalized simply as collateral damage, excluding their passions from the cold corridors of power, and cultivating resignation to ever more suffering. But with their numbers growing and their pain intensifying, it could become an impossible task.