Local Lib Dems campaigned against free school meals as "food for the richest kids"

Lib Dem activists in London and elsewhere opposed Labour's introduction of the policy now adopted by Nick Clegg.

The announcement by Nick Clegg that the coalition will introduce free school meals for all five-to-seven-year-olds from next September has given the Lib Dems something to cheer on the final day of their conference. But if they're to be consistent, at least some should be denouncing him.

In Southwark (as well as Hull and Islington) the party campaigned against the Labour council's introduction of free school meals, branding the policy "millions for free food for the richest kids." In September 2011, councillor Anood Al-Samerai, the leader of the Liberal Democrat group, said: "Labour spending more than £8 million on free school meals for wealthy families simply isn't the answer. There is no evidence to show that extending free school meals to every child will significantly reduce obesity.

"In fact there is evidence from other places which dropped this expensive scheme that it doesn't work. And Southwark already has one of the highest uptakes of free school meals in the country, yet one of the highest obesity levels.

"What works is educating parents and children about how to prepare healthy meals at home. Labour in Southwark has cut early years work in the borough which does this. What works is sport and exercise.

"Labour have cut the Southwark community games which do this. What works is active youth services. Labour has cut these. Instead they are wasting millions on a bribe they offered because they were desperate to be elected and they are taking council tax money from poor families to spend on the lunches of richer ones."

The most notable aspect of Clegg's policy is the reassertion of universalism after the means-testing of child benefit. He said yesterday that he aspires to introduce free school meals for all primary pupils. In response, just as Southwark Lib Dems attacked Labour, the Institute of Economic Affairs and others have criticised the coalition for subsidising the children of rich families. But this ignores the social benefits of universalism.

Free school meals remove the stigma of means-testing (the main reason why 40% of eligible children don't claim them) and ensure that every child receives a healthy lunch. In pilot areas, there was a 23% increase in the number of children eating vegetables and an 18% fall in those eating crisps. As a result, students were found to be on average two months ahead of their peers elsewhere, with between 3 and 5% more children reaching target levels in maths and English at Key Stage 1. Academic improvements were greatest among children from the poorest families.

If rumours of the death of universalism appear to have been exaggerated, it is clear that all three of the main parties now believe in prioritising universal services over universal benefits. Influential figures such as IPPR director Nick Pearce and Gavin Kelly, the chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, have recently argued that should be switched from benefits such as the winter fuel allowance and child benefit to services such as social care and childcare.

This is not just because the funds for improved provision cannot be raised through taxation alone, but also because universal services (most obviously the NHS, but also comprehensive education and Sure Start) have generated more enduring public support than cash benefits. It is notable, for instance, that while the government was able to win majority support for the cuts to child benefit, it could never hope to do so in the case of the NHS. Voters feel a greater sense of attachment and loyalty to institutions, rather than cash transfers.

Liberal Democrat delegates listen to speakers at the party's conference in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leave campaigners are doing down Britain's influence in Europe

As the third biggest country, Britain has huge clout in the EU.

Last week the Leave campaign's Priti Patel took to the airwaves to bang on about the perils of EU regulation, claiming it is doing untold damage to small businesses in the UK. Let's put aside for one minute the fact that eight in ten small firms actually want to stay in the EU because of the huge benefits it brings in terms of trade and investment. Or the fact that the EU has cut red tape by around a quarter in recent years and is committed to doing more. Because the really startling thing Patel said was that these rules come to us "without the British government having a say." That might be forgivable coming from an obscure backbencher or UKIP activist. But as a government minister, Priti Patel knows full well that the UK has a major influence over all EU legislation. Indeed, she sits round the table when EU laws are being agreed.

Don't take it from me, take it from Patel herself. Last August, in an official letter to the House of Lords on upcoming EU employment legislation, the minister boasted she had "worked closely with MEPs to influence the proposal and successfully protected and advanced our interests." And just a few months ago in February she told MPs that the government is engaging in EU negotiations "to ensure that the proposals reflect UK priorities." So either she's been duping the Parliament by exaggerating how much influence she has in Brussels. Or, as is perhaps more likely, she's trying to pull the wool over the British people's eyes and perpetuate a favourite myth of the eurosceptics: that the UK has no say over EU rules.

As the third biggest country, Britain has huge clout in Europe. We have the most votes in the EU Council alongside France, Germany and Italy, where we are on the winning side 87 per cent of the time. The UK also has a tenth of all MEPs and the chairs of three influential European Parliament committees (although admittedly UKIP and Tory sceptics do their best to turn their belief the UK has no influence in Europe into a self-fulfilling prophecy). UKIP MEPs aside, the Brits are widely respected by European counterparts for their common sense and expertise in areas like diplomacy, finance and defence. And to the horror of the French, it is English that has become the accepted lingua franca in the corridors of power in Brussels.

So it's no surprise that the UK has been the driving force behind some of the biggest developments in Europe in recent decades, including the creation of the single market and the enlargement of the EU to Eastern Europe. The UK has also led the way on scrapping mobile roaming charges from next year, and is now setting the agenda on EU proposals that will make it easier to trade online and to access online streaming services like BBC iPlayer or Netflix when travelling abroad. The irony is that the Europe of today which Eurosceptics love to hate is very much a British creation.

The Leave campaign like to deride anyone who warns of the risks of leaving the EU as "talking down Britain." But by denying the obvious, that the UK has a major role in shaping EU decisions, they are the ones guilty of doing our country down. It's time we stood up to their defeatist narrative and made the case for Britain's role in Europe. I am a proud patriot who wants the best for my country, and that is why like many I will be passionately making the case to remain in the EU. Now is not the time to leave, it's time to lead.