By Matthew Watson
So, which one of these epithets applies more in the case of Baroness Jenkin of Kennington? She is the professional public relations consultant who, as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty in Britain, recently claimed that the poor were forced into using food banks because their inadequate cooking skills meant that they were unable to economise effectively. Yet less than three weeks earlier, The Guardian had published the first of the microplays on which its journalists have collaborated with playwrights and Royal Court theatre-makers. It is called Britain Isn’t Eating, and it follows the tribulations of a politician who tries to prove that her scepticism concerning ‘Food Bank Britain’ is justified.
“If people would just pull themselves together, make a bit of an effort….,” she announces through the camera to what she supposes are the like-minded viewers of a television cookery programme. “If people put the same effort into learning how to cook that they do into exaggerating their circumstances so they can get a food voucher and pop down to the nearest food bank for a free hand-out….” The audience of the microplay sees the politician struggle to comprehend the fact that most food bank users are only in that position because all other alternatives have already been exhausted. “These people aren’t really desperate,” is the opening position from which she never retreats. “There’s always something to eat at the back of your cupboard if you just use your imagination …. Let’s not beat about the bush – this is about resourcefulness.”
Laura Wade, the author of the microplay, has been very clear in interviews that the purpose of her script is to satirise the Conservative members of the Coalition Government who have insisted that the cause of food poverty is the absence of the technical skills to plan household budgets appropriately. Satire is most effective when exposing the pomposity of the ‘politician-knows-best’ attitude and thus placing certain stereotyping strategies off-limits politically. What are we to make, then, of a Conservative peer jumping in with both feet to subsequently reproduce the stereotype that a satirist had already so successfully spoofed?
In attempting to distil what it means to live life in poverty, Baroness Jenkin put her finger on the problem straightaway: “Poor people don’t know how to cook.” She then offered a homespun comparison of her own economising habits, just in case anyone might be fooled into thinking that it was the life of good fortune she had been born into and not her own learned behaviour which ensured that there was no chance that her cupboard would ever run bare. “I had a large bowl of porridge today, which cost 4p,” she explained. “A large bowl of sugary cereals will cost you 25p.” “I mean, God knows, we’ve all had to tighten our belts,” complains the politician in Britain Isn’t Eating. The Baroness did not go as far, but it would not have been too surprising had this been how her eulogy to the economising properties of porridge had concluded.
I have now become so used to Conservative politicians blaming food bank use on the regrettable behavioural habits of the poor that it feels as though a degree of immunity has set in to the ‘let-them-eat-porridge’ line. What has stuck in my mind more in this instance has been the Baroness’s bungled attempts at a retraction. Amidst something of a media storm, the next day she appeared on BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme in an effort to defuse the situation with an apology: “I made a mistake,” she explained. “Obviously I was stupidly speaking unscripted.”
Well, this might just be me, but it is precisely in those moments when I don’t feel the pressure of having to follow a script that I can satisfy myself that I am talking from the heart. What you hear in these circumstances is the authentic me, concentrating on what I really want to say and not on what I believe other people are expecting to hear from me. And isn’t this the same standard by which we should judge Baroness Jenkin’s original comments?
We know that Conservative ministers have repeatedly refused to see the distinctly personal dimension behind all food bank use. It has been explained away as an example of what happens when individuals are relieved of the responsibility of recognising the market worth of the produce they consume. People, apparently, just prefer free stuff rather than having to pay for it, so there is no call to try to understand the real need being satisfied by food banks or the shame that is so often reported when individuals can find no other way of preventing family members from going hungry. The Trust that has established many of Britain’s food banks has also been criticised for politicising the hunger issue by linking it directly to benefit sanctioning. Conservative ministers will not accept that such a link exists, despite the fact that the direct route to food bank referral in so many cases is at the point of benefit payments being stopped. Even in the week of Baroness Jenkin’s gaffe the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, said that there was no issue here. Germany, he explained, has a higher incidence of food bank use despite being a richer country, so what is all the fuss about?
All of these are moves designed to obscure the human stories that exist behind every moment of desperation when someone visits a food bank seeking help. In bemoaning the lack of home economics skills amongst Britain’s less well-off communities, Baroness Jenkin gratuitously misunderstood the nature of the necessary help. But at least she inadvertently put actual people back into the discussion of food banks as something more than an element of Government statistics. Before then it had seemed to be left to the satirists to do this job by highlighting the real suffering involved and the degree to which that suffering is overlooked when class-based prejudice takes over the surrounding narrative. As recent events have demonstrated, though, the line between satire and Conservative politicians speaking honestly about their feelings concerning food bank use is sometimes an extremely fuzzy one.
Matthew Watson is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. He is also an Economic and Social Research Council Professorial Fellow. He has previously blogged for Politics Reconsidered on the ethics of food banks and his most recent article can be found here.