As someone who genuinely can’t stand Jeremy Corbyn, I find myself in a strange position — siding with him against his critics.
The reason? Labour’s new policy of universal free school meals in primary education, paid for by levying VAT on private school fees. Judging by some of the reactions to it some are in default mode — just as we’d dismiss an Ed Sheeran song written about genuine feelings of heartbreak as confected pop gimmickry, any policy that comes out of the mouth of Labour’s bearded blunder must be dismissed as daft, dangerous or both.
But it isn’t obviously stupid, unaffordable or counterproductive and it does a good thing — provides children from struggling families with a basic need. It should not be forgotten that struggling to get by isn’t the exclusive preserve of those at the very bottom of society. You currently need to have an income below £16,190 to qualify for free school meals. The state of house prices and rent in some parts of the country means a single parent earning twice that may be very glad of the help the policy provides. Fears over its universality shovelling grub into the mouths of the well off may also be overblown. Very rich parents tend to send their kids to private school, and economies of scale surely mean that if you’re going to offer free school meals to the children of those on middle and low incomes as well as those in immediate danger of poverty, then there’s little point cutting out the few kids who are well off.
Could the money be better spent elsewhere? Perhaps. Breakfast clubs would ensure children didn’t start the day hungry and make it easier for parents to work. Another proposal would be to use the money from private schools to fund after school activities, as one discrepancy between state and private schools is the latter’s ability to nurture extracurricular interests. State schools are too often reliant on the beneficence of overworked but dedicated teachers to do this, resulting in patchy provision. You can also point to funding gaps in education that need filling, or umpteen other things that schools would ideally do but can’t due to funding restrictions. Different educationalists will no doubt have their own bugbears they’d like to see addressed.
However providing free school meals is a simple policy and has the benefit of providing a basic need. Chess clubs don’t stave off hunger. Plugging funding gaps is important but can never be pointed to as a concrete achievement. You raise your money you takes your choice, and it’s churlish to criticise the good for not being the perfect. It may not be exactly the right policy, but at least it is one that makes sense. It’s refreshing to see people deconstructing the minutiae of a concrete proposal rather than struggling to make sense of what on Earth it means.
Proposals like this are what an opposition should be doing. From a cynical political viewpoint it’s an excellently targeted bribe at the people who win you elections — the lower middle class, with the money raised from the privileged. For the first time since Corbyn has been Labour leader, the government may actually be spooked enough by a potentially popular Labour policy to make a counteroffer. In normal times that’s how politics operates — the opposition come up with a wheeze that may be imperfect and need finessing should power arrive (for example how any shortfall would be made up), but which strikes a chord among voters and speaks to real concerns. Eventually, through trial and error governments of whatever colour reach agonisingly towards the correct conclusion. Ed Miliband never got to implement his energy price freeze, but it put the issue on the agenda and made the coalition come up with their own policy to shake up the energy market. If something similar happens here then some good will have been achieved.
As for those hit, it’s the upper middle class, who may have been able to send their kids private but levying VAT will push private school beyond affordability. Firstly it is difficult to shed tears that a few may be shut out of an elitist system so that those worse off can get a basic need. Secondly, it may be a good thing getting those parents to buy in to the state sector — there are few people more demanding than pushy middle class parents.
The fairest criticism is one that is usually heard from Corbyn supporters and directed towards pre-2015 Labour. That it’s all very well but is a piece of tinkering when wholesale reform of social provision is desperately needed. It can be construed as another piece of Milibandism when the country is crying out for a more radical overhaul.
That’s not a reason to denounce the policy though, but a demand for more and better as part of a coherent vision for the country. Labour may be in too dismal and irrelevant a place for this new policy to make much of a difference to either the party’s electoral prospects or people’s lives, but that’s an entirely separate issue. It’s clearly not enough, but it’s, dare we say, a start.
There are many reasons to criticise Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, but proposing to offer free meals to all primary school children probably isn’t one of them.