This is rubbish

An event in central London highlights the global problem of food waste

The New Statesman got a free lunch today in London, and we weren't the only ones.

Feeding the 5,000 was an event in Trafalgar Square that aimed to draw attention to the levels of food waste, both in the UK and elsewhere, by giving anyone who turned up a free lunch, a smoothie and as many groceries as they could fit in a bag.

I spoke to the organiser, Tristram Stuart, who wanted to draw public attention to this global problem. "There is enough food here to feed more than 5,000 people," he said, "and all of it would have been wasted had it not come here."

The main reason for this epic wastage is that all of the ingredients -- the apples in the smoothie, the beans in my curry and the bunch of grapes I took home -- are "outgraded", or cosmetically imperfect. In the UK, being "cosmetically imperfect" means that such food won't be sold by the supermarkets, and can be left to rot in the fields. Even if it makes it on to the next link in the food supply chain, it can still go to waste: in the UK, we waste as much as 25 per cent of all the food we buy, or the equivalent of £500 worth of food a year for every British family.

As a result, Stuart and the organisations he worked with, including This is Rubbish and FareShare, are calling on the government to set mandatory targets for reducing the waste. They also demand that supermarkets report the levels of food wasted "at each stage of the supply chain".

The effects of this problem do not stop with the UK, or with the developed world. Matthew Wingate of Save the Children sees a "direct link between the levels of waste in the UK and the life-saving work Save the Children does in some of the poorest parts of the world".

Having recently returned from north-eastern Kenya, where one in every three children is acutely malnourished, Wingate told me that waste impacts "on global climate issues, development aid targets and even individual giving". I asked him how it feels to see this small portion of the food Britain wastes. "To be honest, it feels disgusting," he said. "To return from feeding centres and see skiploads of perfectly edible 'waste' food really does appal me."

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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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