Dear Jamie Oliver, poverty isn't picturesque by the Mediterranean either

The TV chef's remarks that "You go to Italy or Spain and they eat well on not much money" reveals a startling ignorance about what life is really like in Italy or Spain for those without much money.

In the middle of promoting his new television series millionaire television personality Jamie Oliver has gained a lot of publicity and caused controversy by expressing his frustration at the poor and their eating habits. He said: “I meet people who say, 'You don’t understand what it’s like.' I just want to hug them and teleport them to the Sicilian street cleaner who has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence, and knocks out the most amazing pasta. You go to Italy or Spain and they eat well on not much money. We’ve missed out on that in Britain, somehow.”

This vision of the Mediterranean poor, making delicious soup, salads and desserts with left over bread and eating simple cheap fresh food is deeply engrained in the Anglo food fan's mind. The desirability of cocina povera, authentic peasant food made by poor people who show great ingenuity with access to not very much but are able to create delicious meals out of three cheap ingredients has spawned a multi-million pound UK and US industry of "authentic" Spanish and Italian food books, TV programmes and chains of restaurants. They offer the food of the deserving poor, the ones who manage well on very little. They have very little but look how desirable their lifestyle is, the story goes, we middle classes want to be them, what has happened to our poor? Why can't they be more like, say, the Spanish?

The poor are already being far more like the Spanish than we realise. In 2010 in the province of Barcelona, an area with a population of less than five million, more than 100,000 people were forced to use food banks for basics like rice, oil, tins of tomatoes, baby milk and other staples from one of three charitable food bank groups.

To get to the Spanish 2010 level of food bank use, we'd need to have three times more users than we have at the moment, at least one million more working poor would need to access food banks to make us more like Spain. Recent reports of an ever increasing in the use of food banks may enable us to get those extra million users.

Churches and civic centres have also opened "social dining rooms" to give people in their neighbourhoods the chance of a hot meal at lunchtime. People who can't afford to heat food, or have had their electricity and gas cut off as they haven't been able to pay their bills turn up between 12 and 2pm to eat the only hot meal they will get that day. In 2012 380,737 meals were served to 10,423 users in Barcelona, a city with a population of 3 million.

In my London neighbourhood of Walthamstow Frank Charles and Gary Nash set up Eat or Heat. As well as a food bank they try and draw attention to the plight of many in E17 who have to choose between heating themselves or their food in winter as they cannot afford the bill for both. Walthamstow also has a group running cooking classes, in a similar vein to ones run in Spain, to teach people how to cook simple cheap food using as little expensive electricity or gas as possible.

In 2011 a group of the best known chefs in Barcelona joined forces with a total of 48 restaurants to donate 50 cents of each tapa sold to a charity working with the newly poor in Barcelona. The project was headed up by El Bulli's Ferran Adria and his brother Albert, with major names like Sergi Arola, Carme Ruscellada and Carles Gaig taking the front stage. They have also released a book of recipes with all the funds going to the same charities.

Chefs in Spain are far more revered by the general public than here in the UK. They are seen as figures of great cultural importance and their co-operation with both charities and organisations promoting healthy eating is well known. The united front presented by these famous chefs would be the equivalent of Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Nigella Lawson and the Hairy Bikers being on the same platform, using their time free of charge to promote a project with the aim of raising funds for the increasing numbers of working poor in the UK.

There would be no TV series, book tie in, restaurant or cooking school promotion opportunity. Some of the above celebrities would even send some members of their team to quietly, without press attention, help at social kitchens or food banks or classes while being on the celeb's payroll. They may even do it themselves. The help they gave to these charities would be ongoing, last far longer than their latest television series and be something that not very many people knew about outside of those directly working within the organisations. No chain of restaurants, magazines or expensive tomato plants would be sold on the back of the publicity that these "good works" would generate, as there would be next to none for any one individual.

The question, "why aren't they more like the Spanish?" is something I regularly ask people in the UK. I just ask it about different people than Jamie.

Jamie Oliver. Photo: Getty
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Anti-semitism and the left: something is rotten in the state of Labour

Labour held three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016. A new book by Dave Rich investigates how we got to this point.

The relationship between the left and the Jews has always been a complex one – ostensibly harmonious but with an underlying unease. For decades, the left’s ideological stance against racism and intolerance made it – in Britain, at least – a natural home for Jews. Its largest party, Labour, could rely on a majority share of Britain’s Jewish vote. Yet the 19th-century German socialist August Bebel, who described anti-Semitism as “the socialism of fools”, understood that, like a tumour, it has always existed in the left-wing body politic.

It is this duality that Dave Rich seeks to explore in his impressive and important book. How, he asks, did we get to the situation in which Labour, the party whose founding principles include opposing bigotry, felt the need to hold three separate inquiries into anti-Semitism within its ranks during the first part of 2016?

For so long, the dichotomy was simple, consisting of a clash of two notions of the Jew: an oppressed figure deserving of the left’s solidarity and the perennial embodiment of socialism’s great enemy, capitalism. In the words of (the Jewish) Karl Marx:


What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money . . . Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of man – and turns them into commodities . . . The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew.


Whether or not Marx meant the words ironically (as many academics contend), he articulated the most prominent leftist critique of Jews of his time. However, as Britain’s former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks has argued, anti-Semitism, like any virus, must mutate to survive. Now the most significant word in the quotation above – which Marx uses figuratively – is not “money”, as he would have seen it, but “Israel”.

As Rich notes, the link between British Jews and Israel is almost inviolable. While support for Israeli policies is mixed (there is much opposition to the settlements), he records that 82 per cent of British Jews say that the country plays a central role in their identity, while 90 per cent see it as the ancestral home of the Jewish people. Set against this is his (correct) observation that: “Sympathy for the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel have become the default position for many on the left – a defining marker of what it means to be progressive.” He argues that once you discover what someone on the left thinks about Israel and Zionism, you can usually guess his or her views on terrorism, Islamist extremism, military intervention and British-American relations.

When Stalin’s show trials and bloodlust finally discredited communism, many on the left, bereft of an ideology, fell into a dull, almost perfunctory anti-Americanism, dressed up as “anti-imperialism”. Intellectually flaccid but emotionally charged, this strand of thought became – to those on the hard left who had for so long been confined to the margins – all-encompassing. The dictum “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”, in effect, was adopted as its slogan. Any Middle Eastern or South American dictatorship that “stands up” to the US ipso facto is an ally, as is any Islamist hate preacher who does so. Israel, viewed as a US-backed colonial outpost, became the physical manifestation of all that was wrong with the world.

With Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last year, this particular leftist world-view entered the heart of the party. In 2008, Corbyn wrote of the Balfour Declaration – the UK government’s promise to British Jews of a homeland in Palestine – that it had “led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians . . . Britain’s history of colonial interference . . . leaves it with much to answer for.” The description of Israel as a colonialist enterprise, rather than a movement for sovereignty through national independence, and the culpability of an “imperial” Britain, encapsulate the twin impulses that drive Corbyn’s beliefs about foreign affairs.

The problem, Rich argues, is that it is just a short step from these beliefs to the ideas that Israel should not exist and that its Western supporters, who include most Jews, are racists. Combined with a resurgence of social media-charged conspiracies about Zionist wealth and power, the left has formed an anti-racist politics that is blind to anti-Semitism. Jews are privileged; they are wealthy; they cannot be victims.

Thus, “Zionist” has become not a term to describe a political position but an insult; thus, Jews, unless they denounce Israel (their “original sin”), are excluded from the left that now dominates the Labour Party. When such ideas become normalised, anything is possible. Jackie Walker, the recently suspended vice-chairwoman of the Corbyn-supporting group Momentum, can claim with sincerity that “many Jews” were the “chief financiers” of the slave trade, a modern myth and piece of bigotry popularised by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan – a notorious anti-Semite – in a 1991 book.

By the middle of this year, as many as 20 Labour Party members had been suspended or expelled for alleged anti-Semitism. At times, Rich appears bewildered. Though he never articulates it, the question “What has happened to my party?” echoes through these pages. Is it a case of just a few bad ­apples, or is the whole barrelful rotten? The answer, Rich concludes convincingly, in this powerful work that should be read by everyone on the left, is sadly the latter. 

The Left’s Jewish Problem by Dave Rich is published by Biteback, 292pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood