What the free school meals scandal says about capitalism in Britain

The refusal to extend free school meals over Christmas has met a lot of backlash. The predicted cost of this scheme would only be around £20 million[1] as only 15% of students were estimated to be receiving free school meals.[2] This number accounts for about 1.3 million children but the actual figure is now estimated to have risen to around 2 million.[3]

So far only the existing £63 million hardship fund for councils provides any pot of money to pay for local schemes. By contrast, the Eat Out to Help Out scheme ended up costing £22 million more than its original £500 million budget.[4] This and the billions spent elsewhere shows that the money is there, but the will isn’t.

Already the toxic nature of this move has been realised in the attempts to shift blame between government departments.[5] What this seems to point to more than anything is that the Tories overriding concerns aren’t feeding children and vulnerable people. It was simply never a priority for them. Indeed civil servants have claimed they were not asked to draw up any concrete proposals for free school meals over the holidays.[6]

This scandal shows a lot more about the sad reality of life under capitalism than we might care to admit. The debate is not about feeding everyone, just ensuring the most helpless are supported. Even this small act of empathy is seen as a step too far by many Tory MPs, with one MP‘s first instinct being to say free school meals will help fund crack dens.[7]

Rebecca Long Bailey’s call for a national food service[8] are already long forgotten in the Westminster world. Such is the power of hegemonic control in shaping the very terms of discussion, often to avoid the fundamental issues. In this case these issues being the economic policies of the ruling class and the actions of the Tory government in creating the biggest shift in wealth upwards since the 19th century.

At this point is it any surprise that the children of Margaret Thatcher ‘the milk snatcher’ are following her principles to their logical conclusion? The belief of the ruling class is not that everyone ought to be looked after, which is why after a decade of Tory rule where food banks are now normalised, the Tories can through a belief in their own charitably, praise food banks while ignoring the fact that they created the need for them.[9]

Mutual aid groups have sprung up across Britain, but less so than in other countries with more communal living, and stronger levels of social organisation, such as trade unions. Instead the deep inequality we live with, become a ritual for the rich to show their deep care by donating several million to charity while billions are taken in profits, and much of it moved overseas to avoid taxes. As the welfare state continues to be eroded it is more important than ever that we rebuild organisations of solidarity, especially amongst young people to link mutual aid to political action so that impoverishment we’re living with today once more becomes a thing of the past.

Daragh O’Neill


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/oct/26/treasury-rejects-claims-it-refused-extra-150m-for-free-school-meals

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-54687985

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/oct/23/councils-across-england-pledge-to-provide-free-school-meals-over-holidays

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/sep/04/eat-out-to-help-out-sees-diners-claim-100m-cut-price-meals-in-august

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/oct/26/treasury-rejects-claims-it-refused-extra-150m-for-free-school-meals

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/oct/26/treasury-rejects-claims-it-refused-extra-150m-for-free-school-meals

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/oct/24/ben-bradley-under-pressure-to-apologise-over-free-school-meals-tweets

[8] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/coronavirus-rebecca-long-bailey-national-food-service-self-isolation-a9418266.html

[9] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/tory-dwp-chief-says-food-21379208

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