Iit won’t be Boris Johnson, but whoever turns out to be the new Prime Minister, they will be dragged into office by the “economic orthodoxy” and its supporters. Their mandate is pre-written in the data you’ve been bombarded with on the impact of unfunded tax cuts, from the depreciation of the pound to rising interest rates, and the unsustainable growth effect this has had on mortgages and rents. The charts said – the ideological experiment has gone horribly wrong and must be reversed.
But it is a story of two crises, and only one is being talked about. 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 descent into deprivation will test an already stretched informal support network to its limits. Last week, food bank charity the Trussell Trust launched an urgent appeal for donations as the need for food banks has now outstripped donations. Charities like these, citizens and schools are mobilizing to bridge the gap.
The hole is too big to close. Half of all primary schools in England are trying to feed children in poverty who are not entitled to free school meals because their parents’ incomes do not meet the threshold. But there are 800,000 of them. Sometimes it can be difficult to grasp the scale of a problem through bare statistics, but vivid and haunting details can make it clear. Children eat school gum to coat their stomachs and dull the pain and nausea from hunger. Others bring empty lunch boxes and then pretend to eat their phantom food away from their classmates, too embarrassed to reveal they have nothing to eat.
If the families of these children can’t afford to eat, they definitely can’t afford to keep warm as winter approaches and energy prices rise. How can children expect to learn with their minds damaged by hunger and cold? Over the past year, the reading ability of seven-year-olds from poor families has fallen at twice the rate of those from wealthy families, and their future prospects have diminished before they even begin.
But for heaven’s sake, the scenes at Westminster! Kwasi Kwarteng was fired on the plane, Suela Braverman left due to a data breach, she reported handshakes, running and shouting outside the voting lobby. And if that wasn’t enough to quell the rumbling bellies and chattering teeth, Liz Truss has thrown in the towel, unleashing yet another whirlwind of new leadership speculation and attention-sucking horse-trading.
“I worry,” Naomi Duncan, chief executive of Schools Bosses, told me two hours after Truss resigned, “that the political turmoil that’s going on will distract.” The solution for her is simple: give one meal a day to all children based on need, not on income calculation, which has long ceased to be valid.
Sounds simple, right? But the kind of government that fights poverty, hunger, and cold is not the kind of government that everyone who matters wants. As the emergency situation intensifies, politicians and opinion makers are not asking the fireman to treat this as the crisis it really is, but to make the “adults” read those economic cards better.
“The adults are back,” Liam Fox stated, following Jeremy Hunt and Penny Mordaunt’s box office performance last week. “If Truss can’t sort herself out quickly,” the Sun (of all papers) told us, “the adults need to get in the room” and “negotiate a peaceful transition to a reasonable figure.” This trope illustrates the detachment of both Westminster and Westminster watchers. As the country enters its winter crisis, they are looking at the top for a leader with vague technocratic skills who, like a contract management consultant, will be able to “stabilize” UK plc. We should not feed the mouths of children, but the markets.
If this new leader must have an ideology, it should be in line with the goal of “fiscal responsibility,” itself synonymous with reduced government spending. They must “look like leaders” and make whatever callous cuts they must, preferably while showing appropriate regret for having to make “tough decisions.” The result of this settlement is the eerie absence of politicians who can articulate the extraordinary pain the public is going through. Nor are there any policies to address the cost of living and energy emergencies through higher taxes on the wealthy, or an economic stabilization program that addresses the goals not only of those who want to prosper, but also those who need to survive.
Even among the seething opposition there is a kind of bloodless fury. “The damage to mortgages and bills is done,” tweeted Keir Starmer as if the economic impact was being felt by scraps of paper, not people. Everyone seems to have realized that injecting feelings and channeling the fear and deprivation that lurks on people every day disqualifies you from being taken seriously as a politician. The “adult” approach seems to keep markets happy and achieve abstract “growth”, instead of prioritizing the safety of those on the margins who cannot benefit from that growth; those who will suffer the most when the next round of soberly dictated cuts arrives.
Incorporating into one’s economic vision the importance of benefits, subsidies or improvements in public services for the benefit of those who are unable to fully participate in the housing market or the labor market is somehow outside the parameters of acceptable policy.
But staying in that lane of acceptable politics has resulted in our political and social crises. The fallacy is that if we try just one more time with someone like Rishi Sunak, the man who openly complained that funding was “pushed into poor areas”, the right or right of center will crush it. Despite the fact that this tribe has pursued the deregulation agenda of big business for the past two decades, allowed working conditions and wages to collapse, slashed benefits and failed to invest the money saved from painful cuts in, to take just one example, any green energy which is ready for the future and which would alleviate this winter crisis.
I wonder, even with attention constantly returning to the Westminster spectacle, how many more chances adults can get away with when every day another adult or child goes without food, or another family huddles together at night instead of putting the heat on . How much longer can people put up with a consensus that appeases the financial system with an “acceptable” number of losers? Grown-up politics is literally that: neglecting those who don’t “matter,” viewing the economically marginalized simply as collateral damage, excluding their passions from the cold halls of power, and cultivating resignation to ever-increasing suffering. But as their numbers grow and their pain intensifies, that may become an impossible task.