Are MPs who celebrate the opening of a food bank shameless hypocrites? Maybe—but that's not the full storyby Chaminda Jayanetti / December 4, 2018 / Leave a comment
Tory MPs posting photos of themselves smiling at food banks provoked well-deserved derision from critics, who pointed out the role of the benefit cuts those same MPs voted for in driving up malnutrition.
After nearly a decade during which government policy has kicked away the chair from beneath millions of families, to see MPs who helped create this situation posing for the camera amid the consequences left many incredulous. How can they be so cynical?
While it would hardly be the first time that politicians have acted in a shameless manner, to simply cast it in these terms is to ignore the effect of right-wing worldviews in shaping their perceptions.
While parliament is undoubtedly overstocked with outright charlatans, most MPs, most of the time, genuinely think they are doing the right thing.
Even on the Tory benches, for every Etonian chancer, there are many more whose lives before parliament were more ordinary than stereotypes would predict: Sheryll Murray, the Tory MP who infamously said she was “really pleased” there were food banks in her constituency, left school at 16 and was a medical receptionist at a GP surgery.
So how do we explain the food bank photos? Pure shamelessness? Cognitive dissonance? In some cases, perhaps. But more broadly, there are two dynamics at work.
First, the Conservative view of society favours ‘stories’ over sterility. Even though free-market ideology promotes brute efficiency and allows the unearned inheritance of economic privilege, its adherents talk more about the working-class kid who knuckles down, works hard and makes a fortune than they do about hedge fund supercomputers betting billions of electronic dollars on split-second micro-movements in the value of aluminium derivatives.
Part of this is pure salesmanship, of course. But we should not assume its supporters do not believe the hype. After all, the Conservative Party is laden with people from working-class backgrounds who “did well for themselves.” Being surrounded by real-life evidence of the transformative potential of free-market economics obscures the wider reality—that such people stand out because they are the minority. Sajid Javid’s ‘backstory’ is a selling point because of its rarity.
But such ‘backstories’ provide much more compelling narratives than that provided by fiscal policymaking. Nobody will ever make a Hollywood film about the tax credit system supporting a single mother out of poverty, which it did on a vast scale.
And so, to food banks. They are charitable, sometimes religious, generally community-based, and regularly staffed by volunteers—features which chime with a ‘small c’ conservative view of society.
Charity makes for a good story: people choosing to do something ‘good’ for other people. It is life-affirming and strengthens social bonds. The clinical, transactional nature of the benefit system does none of these things. It does not make for a good story. So, people feel less attachment to it—and Conservatives see less value in it.
The benefit system is, however, far more efficient than charity. Food banks require enough people to donate enough food and time to meet demand—and given the rising demand driven by benefit cuts, they invariably fall short. They require huge collective resources to provide a less secure, less certain, less effective and less efficient replacement for benefits—something the supposedly efficiency-minded Conservatives appear to miss.
But then, the Conservatives don’t understand what the benefit system is for. Which brings us to the second dynamic explaining Tory MPs’ photo ops at food banks. They often don’t seem to realise that benefit cuts drive food bank use.
Right-wing ideology does not accept the role played by the benefit system. Just because Britain does not impose the collectivised agriculture or direct food subsidies, that does not mean our food supply exists in a laissez-faire paradise.
We do have food subsidies. They are called benefits. Our benefit system acts as a relatively efficient and highly effective subsidy for food, together with other essentials and desirables, by providing poorer people with the money to afford market prices. If people on low incomes did not receive benefits, how could they afford to buy food? It’s basic logic—but ideology is the enemy of logic.
Right-wing ideology does not understand the role that the welfare state plays in subsidising access to free markets in necessities. Instead, it sees its role as compelling unemployed people back to work through benefit cuts and sanctions.
This idea of ‘labour market activation’ has dominated welfare policy for more than three decades; New Labour, too, took a stern approach to out-of-work claimants. This is enabled by a slew of hysterical tabloid narratives about benefit ‘scroungers’ spending their money on ‘booze and fags’ and flatscreen TVs. On this understanding, out-of-work benefits exist almost for the purpose of being cut, like a whip being cracked to quicken a racehorse.
However, we should not ignore the fact that the most ideologically extreme right-wingers—including some, though not all, Tory MPs—do realise that the welfare state prevents hunger, but see the hunger and malnutrition benefit cuts cause as simply the ‘whip of starvation’ at work.
The benefit system does not furnish us with a heartwarming tale of redemption or fighting against the odds. It is at its most efficient when it makes fewest moral judgements about who receives benefits and how they spend them. But its role is critical in preventing hunger and hardship.
Instead of recognising this, we have Tory MPs convinced that the benefit system is wasteful, that it exists purely as a whip to get people into work, that it crowds out community initiatives, and that the hotchpotch coverage and provision of charitable food banks are better because they are life-affirming and community-building. Of course they are happy to be photographed at food banks—to them, they are a sign of a successful society.
It is the triumph of fantasy over reality—but when is ideology anything else?