Spare a thought for the Conservative MP Lee Anderson, who has spent the past few days single-handedly trying to solve Britain’s cost of living crisis with very little thanks. It all started after he stated in the Commons that food banks are unnecessary in Britain because the main cause of food poverty is a lack of cooking and budgetary skills. “I think you’ll see first-hand that there’s not this massive use for food banks in this country,” the MP for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire proclaimed. “You’ve got generation after generation who cannot cook properly. They can’t cook a meal from scratch. They cannot budget.” Nutritious meals, he added, could be easily cooked for 30p a time.
Not one to see a hole and stop digging, Anderson has launched an ill-advised media round to defend himself after a backlash, including criticism from the anti-poverty campaigner and budget cooking expert Jack Monroe. Anderson told Times Radio he was glad he had whipped up a “leftwing” furore “because at the moment all we’re hearing in chamber is ‘food bank use is on the up’”. Probably because it is. Anderson doubled down in an interview with the deputy leader of the Reclaim party, Martin Daubney, even alleging that Monroe was profiteering from the poor. Monroe has since instructed libel lawyers.
It’s all very Wagatha Christie, except rather than embarrassing himself by allegedly selling soundbites to the press, Anderson is seemingly doing it for free. He is hardly the first Conservative MP to make such comments. Multiple ministers over the past decade have publicly argued there isn’t really a reason for food banks, coincidentally just as they pulled tens of billions of pounds from the social safety net. Jacob Rees-Mog thinks food banks are “rather uplifting”. Michael Gove believes those turning to food donations just haven’t made the right “decisions … to manage their finances”. Dominic Raab said people visit food banks because they have a “cashflow problem”. Indeed, Anderson isn’t the only Tory MP to make such a remark this week. On Monday, minister Rachel Maclean suggested that in the long term, people struggling with the cost of living could just take on more hours at work or move to a better-paid job.
Such comments are grossly insulting at the best of times, but land particularly badly with the public in a time of a mounting food and energy costs. When people are hungry from skipping meals, I suppose they do tend to get tetchy.
It would be easy to dismiss such comments as thoughtless anger-bait, but they serve a political purpose. Discrediting food banks or casting work as an easy route out of poverty suggest that hardship isn’t down to low wages, benefit cuts, high energy prices or unaffordable housing, but rather that working-class people are too stupid to budget properly or too lazy to look for a better job.
This reduces the fact of millions of people going hungry and cold in this country to a few families who can’t cook. Fundamentally, such remarks attempt to shift responsibility from the government and place it firmly on the individual. If a single mum is wasting her universal credit, why should ministers increase benefits in line with inflation? Tory MPs are playing their get-out-of-jail cards, taken from the old deck that if only the poor tried hard enough, they wouldn’t be in poverty. Or as rightwing commentator Isabel Oakeshott put it recently: having to survive on low rate benefits “concentrates the mind”.
It is ignorance that leads to these comments, sure, but it is also a wilful refusal to accept the facts. Charities such as the Trussell Trust have been explaining the reasons for growing use of food banks for years. (Spoiler for Anderson: it is less their copy of Nigella’s latest cookbook people have lost, more their disability benefits.) Similarly, as Monroe points out, it is not hard to understand that “30p meals” don’t actually exist, not least because buying a hot meal means being able to afford both food and the energy to cook it. These are not exactly radical ideas; even the boss of Iceland recognises that some food bank users are declining items such as potatoes because they can’t afford the energy it would take to boil them.
Rightwing MPs and pundits choose to believe these myths because it suits them. It is in the Conservatives’ interests to depoliticise poverty, to propagate the idea that hardship is a result of an individual’s bad decisions rather than government policies. We see this in the bizarre trend of Tory MPs posing at food banks in their local constituencies, which is not dissimilar to an arsonist taking a selfie next to the fire.
The problem for Anderson and his ilk is that the rising inflation crisis means the dots are only going to get easier for the public to join: families are well familiar with the political events that mean they’re now unable to afford the weekly shop. No amount of budgeting will help if the money coming in is less than the bills going out. What people in Britain need is benefits that match inflation, a living wage, energy profit taxes – and politicians that understand the position they’re in. I’ll give Anderson that food for thought for free.
Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist