During World War Two, Churchill feared the rise of communal feeding centres as a socialist endeavour. So as the world emerges from Covid, should Labour not formalise food banks instead of oppose them?
The British Restaurant – 1940s
With families made homeless by endless air raids, the British state took a newly expanded role in helping people. Improvised hostels were organised at town halls and other municipal facilities while authorities organised alternative housing.
This proved a gateway to a more active state in matters of housing and homelessness when the war ended. Yet the British Restaurant effectively ceased after the war.
The British Restaurant was a bare bones communal feeding facility that sprang up in many a community. It provided as decent a meal as could be mustered at a nominal price for desperate Britons – far cheaper than a local cafe.
The name British Kitchen was added part way through the war by Churchill’s government. It feared these places were a creeping form of socialism and so rebranded them – decorating them with prints of Constable paintings and such like to make them more nationalist than communist.
Hunger in Britain – 2010s
The reason the British Kitchens closed was probably that other measures made them unnecessary. The new welfare state, along with new state-owned subsidised housing, meant almost nobody was without sufficient funds for a meal.
The degrading of the welfare state in recent years, however, has returned British families to hunger. Likewise, the return of private renting instead of secure subsidised housing has left millions of families cash-strapped and unable to cope with any financial hit, such as the car breaking down.
Perhaps most critically, many jobs simply don’t pay British families enough to feed themselves properly anymore. High rents and other costs, short and inscure hours, low pay, high bills and a welfare state that almost exclusively deals with those unable to work, just don’t add up to a fit for purpose system anymore.
Don’t Scrap Food Banks
As a result, food banks have risen at an exponential rate since 2010 to ease the worst of the hunger. Then, at the 2019 General Election, Labour expressed an ambition to eliminate food banks. The intention was to end the need. Some campaigners, however, reported that voters had misunderstood this and feared losing their lifeline.
For a naturally co-operatist party like Labour, this feels like an oddity. Labour has never opposed free school meals for poorer children, because of a focus on eliminating the need. In fact, while Marcus Rashford rightly gets the credit for forcing the government to change policy, Labour has been calling for extending those free school meals into the summer for years.
More importantly, millions of the UK’s working poor are largely lost to the state unless they get sick and need the NHS. We no longer send someone to collect their rent because of direct debits and because most can’t get a council house anyway. At the same time, because they are working, we don’t see them at Jobcentre Plus.
Direct Contact Matters
Foodbanks offer a chance to directly support families again. Not only is the food more nutritious than most of the cheapest food available elsewhere, but whole families can come.
This direct contact could be put to good use. Whereas the Victorians would no doubt have used it to plug Christian virtues and temperance, modern Britain could use it to advertise recruitment drives for stable state jobs like nurses or bus drivers, and to promote training courses or health checks. It could even promote awareness of affordable finance to mitigate the marketing of high cost pay day lenders.
Why Labour Are Squeamish
This might make Labour uncomfortable for a number of reasons. Labour aims to eliminate hardship, it sees food banks as an emblem of Tory failure and it has in the past opposed alternatives to providing people with money because of stigma.
Yet Labour actively supported subsidised rents for decades and always supported free school meals. Maybe this is the problem. They supported these in the past and so still do, but have lost sight of why they supported them in the first place.
Labour in the 1940s was made up of people who, for all the desire for a better world, knew first hand that we don’t live in a better world. As such, they committed to measures to help people cope with the world as it really was – using the state to help.
Maybe it’s about time Labour did the same with food banks.