Opinion

How the Free School Meals scandal is part of a wider game

It’s said that a society can be judged on how it treats its poorest, and the government has come under fierce criticism in recent weeks yet again for its refusal to support a scheme for food vouchers for some of the more disadvantaged children in our society. This decision has attracted anger and confusion in equal measure, as people wonder why the government would decide not to implement an eminently affordable scheme which could go a long way to tackle hunger and malnutrition in one of the richer countries in the world.

Tory figures have long asserted that there is no magic money tree, but as public frustrations build over the lack of solidarity with which the government seeks to lead this nation through one of its greatest crises, resources are squandered on inefficient outsourcing – whilst a more effective, publicly run test and trace system is deployed in Wales. The allegations of impropriety in the government awarding of outsourcing contracts serve only to rub salt in the wound.

Perhaps parliamentarians would consider the potential long-term benefits of maximising the health of the population from an early age, for example in reducing future healthcare expenditure? But this is not the sort of thinking the Conservatives would wish to encourage when the opposition will always make that case more strongly. The mantra is ‘not to fix what could be left until tomorrow’, due to the alleged immediate constraints on public expenditure. And yet we find ourselves in a situation where public debt has never been cheaper and currently seems to be the only sure way of stimulating investment in the economy.

Of course, spending can’t be left completely unchecked. However, the government chooses to be stingy with the meagre sums which could have a visible impact whilst playing fast and loose with large infrastructure projects or outsourcing deals which stand to deliver dubious returns. Even then, it still appears to be a remarkable own goal for the government to fail to enact such a neat, targeted scheme in the face of notable political and popular pressure. However, there has been no dramatic shift in the opinion polls over the last week (albeit with Labour possibly edging slightly ahead), and I’m left wondering how many outraged people were previously likely to vote Conservative anyway.

Each time a debate of this nature is sparked, the idea that our public resources are severely deprived is stressed time and time again by various politicians and media outlets. It’s an idea that resonates with people across the breadth of the country, as the vast majority of us have to at least consider our expenditure, even as the limits of our spending power vary wildly. A sense of scarcity of funds makes a government which is unwilling to spend on public services appear prudent even as it disastrously mismanages pandemic response expenditure. As the opposition promises better, it still falls behind on public trust with respect to economic management.

Meanwhile, discussion on the viability of spending what are essentially small sums averts attention from the highly controversial management of the pandemic, as the UK edges further and further into what looks set to be a harsh winter. Given Tory stinginess does not seem to hurt Tory support – and potentially even serves to reinforce assumptions which are a huge part of the party’s electoral arsenal – a dead cat on the table is jolly useful to divert eyes from issues which might!

Even as U-turns are sometimes conceded, the discussion perennially returns to the danger of spending small sums, and this discussion plays into the incumbent government’s hands. U-turns, when they do happen, still entail an implicit emphasis on the gravity of minor spending even if it could realise major benefits to many people’s lives.  

It’s said that austerity is dead, but the Conservative Party has no commitment to the interests of the less well off in our society and will play political games which cultivate a sense of scarcity in order to simultaneously retain power and do what it wishes. By fighting this issue with economic arguments and an appeal to compassion, the Tories have set the stage for easy replies citing the inevitability of tough decisions. Fear of the implications of the size of the national debt stems from a reasonable desire to avoid undue risk, and therefore is likely correlated with concerns over the many dangers facing us today. To escape the traps set by those who play games on reasonable, cautious mindsets, we must make the case that strength and stability is to be found in solidarity across society and the facilitating of each individual’s prosperity. We can’t afford not to.

Image source: Flickr