We Must Stop Confusing Political and Moral Issues
It seems every political issue has come increasingly to resemble a moral ‘rumble in the jungle’. The latest issue to fall victim to moral pugilists is the Free School Meals initiative pressed by footballer Marcus Rashford. During the first lockdown Rashford petitioned the government to offer ‘free school meals’ to Britain’s most disadvantaged children – particularly as the lockdown had had a huge impact on the economy. Last Wednesday the government marshalled the votes to turn down a motion to extend the Free School Meals initiative over the holidays. The backlash was huge and Labour frontbencher Rosena Allin-Khan went so far as to label the government decision ‘morally reprehensible’. It is unclear how she reached this judgement on the outcome of the vote. Condemning a political stance as immoral is a quick way to shut down debate and to garner public support from the right-thinking. Who, after all, wants to be the bad guy?
The assumption behind much of the criticism that is flying about seems to be that the government wants children to go hungry. It is intellectually lazy to pretend that those who disagree with you on a policy matter do so because they are evil. Politics is not often as simple as good versus evil. Often the goals of all or most are much the same and the real differences lie between ways to achieve those targets. One ought at least to rule out first the possibility that MPs who voted against extending free school meals did so because they believe not to be the most effective way to help.
As has been pointed out, the Total Managed Expenditure (TME) is expected to rise to £928 billion 2020-21, an increase of 9% from 2018-19. Conservative MPs who opposed the motion have also pointed out that there has been a £9bn increase in Welfare spending, mainly through universal credit, and there is also £63 million that has been given to local authorities specifically to help struggling families in their constituencies with such problems. It seems eminently sensible to grant those who are well acquainted with a problem the power to solve it. Often government attempts to micro-manage solutions leads to a cumbersome and one-size-fits-all approach.
Many flaws in the FSM initiative have been highlighted. It can hardly help pre-school children, for example, and the nature of the system cannot discern between those genuinely desperate for financial support and those not so. Such a distinction matters if we really want to respond effectively to problems. Ben Bradley pointed out that ‘at one school in Mansfield 75% of kids have a social worker, 25% of parents are illiterate. Their estate is the centre of the area’s crime. One kid lives in a crack den, another in a brothel. These are the kids that most need our help, extending FSM doesn’t reach these kids’. There are many other problems faced by the poorest in our society that are not resolved by the FSM programme. There is much to be done if we want to help all the disadvantaged.
Moral posturing, meanwhile, is a serious impediment to effective governance. There are some strictly moral issues around, and indeed most political issues have moral angles, but if every political issue is rebranded a moral quandary, real solutions will often not be discussed at all. If effective solutions are not reached, then real lives suffer. We must not allow people to become distracted by cosmic battles between good and evil. One would be hard-pressed to find someone who wants children to go hungry. No one political party has a monopoly on compassion.