Marcus Rashford puts Boris Johnson and Labour to shame over free school meals – Laura Waddell

Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford forced Boris Johnson into a U-turn on free school meals and left Labour looking like a limp lettuce, writes Laura Waddell.
Footballer Marcus Rashford turned food poverty into a major political issue by speaking about his childhood experiences of hunger (Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire)Footballer Marcus Rashford turned food poverty into a major political issue by speaking about his childhood experiences of hunger (Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire)
Footballer Marcus Rashford turned food poverty into a major political issue by speaking about his childhood experiences of hunger (Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire)

Like his Trumpian echo across the Atlantic, it increasingly feels that Boris Johnson’s premiership takes decisions on a whim led by which way the media is blowing. Sure, a week of dedicated reporting on Dominic Cummings’ lockdown-breaking jaunts didn’t manage to get rid of him, but with the entire Cabinet hot under the collar yet standing firm by the aide, I suspect the loyalty there is rooted in something the public is not yet privy to.

But look at the UK Government’s U-turn this week on providing school meals for kids outside of term time, particularly important for the most vulnerable children while their parents are under even more strain than usual to provide for them during Covid disruption and job uncertainty. The Scottish Government had already announced their commitment to such a programme earlier in the day. An essential source of sustenance, some of the more vulnerable children who receive school meals are at risk of going hungry over summer holidays, and the pandemic raises the stakes.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It took the footballer Marcus Rashford, with a track record of speaking passionately about hunger and poverty, to launch a campaign which ultimately caught the public’s attention. The prospect of feeding children hadn’t been motivating enough, in itself, to get the PM on board, but the growing backlash did the job. Priorities.

Read More
Boris Johnson u-turns on free school meals in summer after Marcus Rashford campa...

Forget Labour’s attempts to glom on to the success, opportunistically declaring “we won!” on Tuesday. If anything, they supported Rashford’s campaign. New Labour leader Keir Starmer seems unwilling to really stick his neck out for anything that isn’t already a dead cert.

The safely, safely approach isn’t impressing the left-leaning, issue-led members of the party who joined under Jeremy Corbyn, but is it going to impress anyone else? Surely, going harder on arguing for feeding the nation’s children, with a sense of urgency, could have been a crowd pleaser. Compared to Rashford, the opposition were as limp as lettuce.

The difference between eating and not eating

And while the Conservatives were never going to credit Labour with anything, they name-checked Marcus Rashford’s campaign as “contributing to the debate around poverty”, which read like damage control and a desire to own the narrative, as though it had been a conversation they facilitated, rather than necessitated by their disinterest in helping hungry children.

Disadvantage makes itself known very early. Free school meals can be the difference between eating and not eating. No child should worry about having enough energy and sustenance to get through the day, and yet, some do. Some see lunchtimes looming on the horizon, a daily humiliation, as the contents of their meals differ from what their schoolfriends have.

Some who don’t quite qualify for free meals pay for their own knowing each coin they hand over has been hard won; that each note they have was given to them under the stress of strained parents. Poorer children pick up on these things: the subtle ways lack of money shapes everyday lives and closes the door to possibilities, even if they’re protected from the harshest realities by their parents. It sets them aside from their more stable-incomed friends.

At an age where every difference is often the source of embarrassment and mockery, children shouldn’t have to be aware of money at all when it comes to the basic necessities of living. It’s a great worry for carers when those most at risk of hunger at home drop out of the routine of canteen lunch times during holidays and absences, times at which food bank demands can rise.

A political choice

The United States, with its deep-rooted political hostility to social spending blowing up such inequalities to a grotesque scale, has an even worse problem as evidenced by occasional stories emerging of children being denied school dinner food when bills haven’t been paid by their parents.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Sometimes they are given a basic meal, less nourishing than what others receive, like a lacklustre sandwich instead of hot food. For every kitchen attendant minded to slip them something anyway, there will be more worried about losing their jobs for contravening the school rules. Truly, these are horror stories to be mindful of.

But let’s not forget, choosing not to feed the hungry is a political choice, just as desire to move to a privitisation model for the NHS is, damning those who can’t pay for it to the very real possibility that costs could spiral just as they do in the US market, where patients receive pages and pages of bills for the most simple of procedures and if they can’t afford insurance, they’ve had it. The left need to passionately oppose each instace of witholding support. It’s a slippery slope.

The jokes write themselves when it comes to Johnson not providing for children, although neither a calamitous personal life nor political performance is funny. It’s very serious. In fact, it’s straightforwardly heartbreaking to think of children affected by hunger, and that it took a media backlash to shift the PM’s focus. But if his government think they can get away with something as controversial as witholding a school meals programme, what else might they be minded to do to advance projects hostile to welfare, leaving individuals in need in the lurch?

While Starmer seemed to be going through the motions, Rashford showed what can be done to get the public onside on a single issue, making it a straightforward matter of conscience. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to feed a hungry child? But Labour can’t always depend on young footballers and celebrities taking it upon themselves to campaign for social equality. And the public can’t afford to.

School meals are a straightforward welfare issue which revealed the callousness of those leading the country. But Labour have been left on the back foot, trying to hang on to Rashford’s coat tails in the wake of his campaign, just like their opponents forced into retreat by public opinion. They chase after reflected glow from the young star who spoke from the heart about hunger, knowing what it really means to people.

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to and enjoy unlimited access to Scottish news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit now to sign up.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.

Joy Yates

Editorial Director



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.