No Such Thing as a Free Lunch
The Scottish Labour Party may have done itself irreparable damage yesterday with a bizarre and potentially suicidal response to a basic social policy with mass appeal in the free school meals policy. The attempt to explain-away this act afterwards has been even more tortuous than the act itself.
Even their own supporters have come to realise:
This is a grave error by Labour. Universalism is warmly accepted in Scotland, it suits our nation’s ‘common weal’ ethos. Labour in Scotland has seen their mantle of ‘champions of social justice’ dissolve as the SNP fights for the issues and ethos that Labour use to. The Scottish public are pig-sick with heartless neo-liberal policies and until Scottish Labour provide an alternative then they will always be viewed as also-rans compared to the SNP.
‘Also-rans’, I think is the least of their problems now. The issue is what we could call one of ‘narrative’. Free school meals comes under the heading ‘bread and butter’ issues we are always hearing so much about? Without a clear commitment to something as obvious and simple as this it’s going to be difficult for people to know what they are for.
The stance against the £114million package puts the Peoples Party on the wrong side of a policy backed by Children in Scotland, Children 1st, Save the Children, One Parent Families Scotland, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), STUC, UNISON, Church of Scotland, Shelter Scotland and the Poverty Alliance.
Anti-poverty campaigners, children’s organizations, trade unions and faith groups have long argued that the most effective way of ensuring all children, but particularly those in poverty, receive a healthy school lunch is to move toward a universal, non means tested approach to the provision of healthy lunches in the middle of the school day.
The responses from civil Scotland makes it impossible for the Labour Party and their supporters to characterise the policies as driven by nationalist fervor. Graeme Brown, Director of Shelter Scotland:
Coming against the backdrop of further cuts in welfare – with more drastic reductions threatened yesterday by Chancellor George Osborne – free school meals for pupils in P1 to P3 is a direct and proven way of supporting, in particular, families on low or limited incomes, and helping all schoolchildren in Scotland enjoy a better, healthier start to their primary education
Yesterday Labour put naked tribalism against the interests of children. In doing so it leaves them in a sort of political purgatory. To say they are confused about the concept of ‘universalism’ is understatement.
Brian Wilson calls universalism ‘pragmatic, centre-right politics – populist but certainly not progressive.’ Whilst that’s clearly gibberish, oddly for Mrs 41% the issue goes deeper. The only thing she’s known for saying, she now denies ever saying at all.
It’s a real problem, as Robin McAlpine said: “If Scottish Labour wants to open up a debate on universalism, I welcome it. It’ll be a brief debate and universalism will win. Again.” See here.
It’s not just an abstract ideal. Commenting on yesterday’s announcements, John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) defended specifically the universal nature of these changes, saying:
A universal approach to healthy free school lunches provides a huge boost to children and parents at a time when they are under increasing pressure from tax credit and benefit cuts, soaring food and energy prices and stagnating wages. Current means-testing means too many of our worst off children are not receiving a free school meal and parents too often struggle to meet the extra costs of lunches as they move back into work or increase their hours when their children start school. What’s more a universal approach ensures that all our children, whatever their home circumstances, gain the health and education benefits of a healthy lunch in the middle of the school day.
Even if you take a wholly pragmatic view of the Johann Lamont’s attacks, swallowing hook line and sinker the line that we can’t live in a ‘land of freebies’, it doesn’t add up. As Iain Macwhirter writes: “There is a presumption that universal policies are unfair and regressive. But it is often fairer ad more efficient for services to be paid for centrally through general taxation, which itself is based on the ability to pay.”
The idea of universal provision has its origins in classic post-war Labourism. But the concept has its roots in organic societies and was outlined by the anthropologist Paul Radin in 1971.
If Labour’s rejection of free school meals represents a sort of death-rattle for the party it also represents a challenge to our wider parliament. ‘Free’ school meals will only work if schools are properly provisioned, equipped and resourced. The gift isn’t just ALL OF US FIRST – and our children with a good nutritious meal in the middle of the day but also for the left and progressive forces to be stunned into action to create a universalism that is wider and deeper, restoring the decades of damage done by successive Thatcherite governments whether of Labour and Conservative or Liberal parties.