After speaking on panels and at fringe events on food poverty and the bedroom tax, at the Labour Party conference, Green Party conference, and TUC congress recently, this Tuesday I will be entering unfamiliar territory in Manchester, to address the Tories on the rise of food bank use as the direct result of cuts to welfare and support services.
I almost didn’t make it – receiving an email on Thursday morning from MP Stephen Phillips, the ‘director of conferences’ and a Queens Counsel lawyer earning almost £1m a year outside of Parliament, refusing my conference pass less than a week before the event with no explanation. After a few hours of Twitter outrage and a little intervention from The Sunday People, they ‘reconsidered’ and printed my pass. As one of my friends commented on Facebook: “A U-turn from the Conservatives? Who’d have thought?” Well, quite. The Tories may not like what I want to say in Manchester, but it appears that they cannot stop me from saying it.
And quite rightly too – far from “selling out” by attending the Conservative Party conference, if anyone needs to hear about the devastating effects of the austerity cuts in today’s Britain, they’ll all be there, fresh from their celebrations of the life of Margaret Thatcher and tucking into the free buffets and sniffing around the Manchester Food and Drink festival. People like Edwina Currie, who recently claimed on Twitter that she had “no sympathy” for food bank users because they all have “big TVs and nice dogs.” According to Edwina, turning up for free food is an easy, rational choice – painting a picture of opportunists plundering through donations to top up the Ocado delivery with a few dented tins of tomatoes and some black bananas. The realities of life on the breadline couldn’t be any further from the truth – but I imagine that Currie, Freud et al will not be among the delegates visiting a Trussell Trust food bank in Manchester on Tuesday morning, prior to the Oxfam fringe event on food poverty at lunchtime. In the same vein that saw me temporarily banned from their conference, it seems the Tories just want to keep their eyes and ears shut, and churn out their same old tired soundbites about hard working families.
When I met Ed Miliband in Brighton last week, I asked him what he would do for people like me. Turning the strivers and skivers rhetoric on its head, I explained how single parents with children to support “strive” to find jobs in a seemingly never-ending recession, and the daily grind of not being able to provide adequately for your child as delays and cuts to benefits leave gaping holes where your outgoings should be. Ed started his reply with the usual “in 2015” – and I cut him short. I shouted. Half a million people in the UK are reliant on food banks now. How can they possibly wait another 20 months for something for some bloke that might get elected to potentially make things slightly better? Why can’t they see that they can change things, now?
Labour’s recent pledge over energy prices, and the subsequent climb-down by senior Tories such as Michael Gove who admit that the “big six haven’t been entirely admirable”, proves that with a little pressure and a lot of public support, the opposition can change and influence policy from the other side of the floor. There should be no “in 2015” electioneering from any of the main parties – already Labour councils such as Ashford are showing that they will not be dictated to by the bedroom tax, by refusing to evict any tenants that have been affected. The British public are starting to see through the tired sound bites, as a new ComRes poll in today’s Sunday People shows that 60% of people are against the bedroom tax, 20% aren’t sure how they feel about it, and only 1 in 5 are actually for it.
We need to stand together, that 60%, and make it clear that we do not support attacks on the elderly, attacks on the disabled, attacks on single parents, attacks on the unemployed. Only with unity, solidarity, and a thought for our fellow men and women, can we start to tackle the cruelties inflicted by this Government’s brutal policies. Loss of the Independent Living Fund. The bedroom tax. Cuts to the NHS. Benefit sanctions and delays. Cuts to support networks are hurting real people all over Britain right now – and while the Tories need to be shown the wounds inflicted by their cruel and unrelenting assault on basic living standards, the opposition also need to wake up and realise that they have the power to change things – not “in 2015”, but now.
Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe.
Abridged version printed in The Sunday People, 29th September 2013.