Update: Marcus Rashford has scored another victory for working class kids. The Tories have announced they will fund free school meals over the Christmas holidays.

It costs £20 million to provide free school meals during half term. This was too much for the Tories, whose ideological opposition to social welfare and wealth redistribution didn’t stop them announcing £185 million in management consultant contracts in the same week. 

The government provided free school meals for eligible children during this year’s Easter holidays, but refused to extend it into the long summer holidays until a campaign popularised by Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford forced them into a humiliating U-turn. 

Despite the new lockdown and rising unemployment, the government is again refusing to guarantee that free school meals will be provided over the Christmas break. The Labour Party pushed the decision to a vote in Parliament, which it lost. Tory MPs were instructed to support the government refusal, with only a handful breaking ranks. “I totally understand the issue of holiday hunger,” said Boris Johnson, “The question is, how do you deal with it.” 

The government’s decision has been met with widespread anger. Two hundred authors have signed an open letter decrying the refusal to provide children with free school meals during a pandemic. Teaching unions such as the NEU have issued condemnations. A petition created by Rashford has garnered over a million signatures.

Around a quarter of UK households live in poverty. Over a decade of austerity has increased all measurable levels of poverty, with cuts to the welfare system leaving millions of working and unemployed people living below the poverty line. 

Successive Conservative and Labour governments have promoted the idea that poverty is the failure of individual families. Despite repeated studies showing the link between poverty and government spending, cuts to social housing, benefits and local authority financial support continue – even after the “end of austerity”. 

The 322 MPs who voted against providing free school meals continue a decades long assault on the remaining elements of the welfare state reforms wrested from the bosses in the post-war Labour governments. The capitalist idea that you are individually responsible for your living and working conditions, and the attacks on the welfare state that inevitably follow, has paved the ideological way for the end to free school meals – and not just during the holidays. 

When Ben Bradley, Conservative MP for Mansfield, described those receiving free school meals as living in “crack dens” and “brothels”, he was merely expressing openly the attitude underpinning the actions of his fellow MPs. Theirs is an attitude of unfettered class hatred and stigmatisation, a Benefits Streets culture that blames the poor for the consequences of government policy. 

Bullingdon boy Boris Johnson claiming to understand “the issue of holiday hunger” is as offensive as it is ridiculous. Nevertheless, for as long as Labour’s opposition to the Tories lags behind that of a campaigning footballer, Johnson can afford to bluster and delay. 

Those pointing to the superstar wages earned by Rashford miss the point. The salaries of the miniscule number of elite footballers are a drop in the ocean compared to the real wealth hoarders – the capitalist bosses who own Easyjet and Dysan, Tata Steel and Ford, the shareholders at the big banks, hedge fund speculators, landlords, and contractors raking in billions from government contracts. 

British bosses are among the wealthiest in the world, their coffers bursting from the exploitation of hundreds of millions of workers around the world. We should not need philanthropy or charity to feed our children during the holidays – or at any other time. 

Austerity is the policy of demolishing the welfare state and reducing wages in order to open up fresh ‘markets’ to exploit for profit. Austerity never went away, it is hardwired into Universal Credit and NHS privatisation. The massive sums borrowed to pay for furlough and contracts handed out to private contractors who failed to deliver PPE or test, track and trace, will come due soon, and the banks will insist that workers pay for it – with our wages, pensions, jobs and, yes, free school meals. 

Resistance to further attacks by the ruling class and its representatives in the Tory party must recognise this and fight for a socialist alternative based on collective ownership of society’s wealth and democratic planning for equality and ecological development.

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