SUCH is the current fad for food banks, it is easy to forget they are a scab on the face of humanity as opposed to a photo opportunity, an image-booster or an excuse for oneupmanship. Indeed, as politicians jostle with each other to get involved, then talk about it on Twitter, you begin to realise that if food banks didn’t exist, parliamentarians would have to invent them (deliberately, that is, as opposed to inadvertently as a result of welfare reforms).
Visiting a food bank is rapidly becoming the quick fix for those who want to flex their moral muscle. Labour and SNP MPs and MSPs, activists, campaigners – anyone trying to stake a claim on the left – wants a piece of the Trussell Trust action and, when they get it, they wear it as a badge of superiority, as if they had cured cancer rather than merely divested themselves of a few comestibles.
Of course, most ordinary people involved in food banks are not like this; they turn up week-in, week-out to donate and distribute food driven by nothing other than the desire to alleviate distress. And the only reward they seek is the knowledge they’ve filled a few more bellies.
Nevertheless, at a macro level, hunger is being hijacked for political ends, and nowhere more so than in Scotland, where the working class vote is up for grabs and food banks are in the middle of a political scrum. So much so that at a recent Hope Over Fear rally, Tommy Sheridan was accused of “stoking food bank wars” and, at last week’s Labour Party gala dinner, activists staged a protest and food collection which – though it reaped 80-100 bags of groceries – was primarily a stunt to paint Labour politicians in a bad light.
There are several pitfalls in voicing a distaste for the politicisation of food banks. The first is it can seem churlish. Does it really matter if people are piggy-backing on a good cause, so long as more people are eating and awareness is being raised? The second is that poverty is intrinsically political. How can we live in a society where people are falling through gaps without questioning how it happened or what can be done to reverse it? More than that, it is the job of opposition MPs and anti-poverty campaigners to highlight the specific policies they believe are to blame and to hold those responsible to account.
Though some object, I have no problem with the heads of charities expressing political opinions so long as their day-to-day work remains agenda-free. In other words, for me, it is acceptable for Trussell Trust chairman Chris Mould to criticise the government, but not for individual food banks or collections to be used to bolster one political movement or undermine another.
And post-referendum, that’s what’s been happening. To be fair, it all started innocently enough. The day after the George Square riot, the founders of Glasgow’s Needy, Darren and Andrew Carnegie, were giving a talk when people started turning up with bags of food and the feel-good factor returned. But then pro-indy campaigners started claiming the spontaneous gesture as evidence of the positivity of the Yes campaign and (by implication) the negativity of the No campaign. The underlying message seemed to be that if you voted No you didn’t care about the poor and had forfeited all rights to feed them.
As the bags continued to pile up, it all began to feel a bit showy and self-congratulatory. If people were so keen to help, why couldn’t they take their donations to their nearest food bank where it could be more easily distributed? Were the lines between doing good and making a statement beginning to blur? And if food banks were to become synonymous with the Yes campaign, would people stop asking what more the SNP and other pro-indy parties could/should be doing to eradicate them?
My sense of unease grew as pop-up food banks began to appear at rallies across the country, until – at the Sheridan event – we had the unedifying spectacle of one food bank claiming it had been edged out by another. When two charities with the same aim end up in a turf war, someone really has lost the plot.
And so we come to the nadir of this unfortunate politicisation process: the stramash at last week’s Labour Party gala dinner, from which no-one emerges with much credit. Let’s start with Jim Murphy, whose donation is said to have been turned down by protesters. Why did he choose to make it in the public glare? Could it be he guessed he would be snubbed, allowing him to snatch the moral high ground? Certainly he lost no time in turning the alleged snub to his advantage.
Murphy, however, would have had to go a long way to come out worse from the stunt than the protesters themselves, who booked two rooms at Glasgow’s Grand Central Hotel at an estimated £100 each to draw attention to the extravagance of the dinner, and branded the MP smug.
I hope everyone involved in this farce will take a long hard look at themselves and ask whether exploiting the misery of the city’s poorest in this way helps them or demeans them. I hope they will remember that while they are engaging in petty tribal point-scoring, there are people out there so hungry they’ll eat a tin of baked beans cold with their fingers. Instead of being the focus of public outrage, these people have been reduced to pawns in a conflict waged by parties who are more interested in undermining each other than coming up with constructive solutions. «