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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General election 2017: Why don't voters get more angry about public spending cuts?

In 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts. By 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. What happened?

The shape of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s pitch to the country is clear. The overarching theme is a “rigged” system, a Bernie Sanders style anti-establishment campaign. 

This started with a clear economic focus, but will build out to public services and state support more generally: first, the switch to under-funded schools, and we’ll soon see the NHS emerge as the primary target. As the shadow Health secretary Jon Ashworth said, Labour believes the public has reached a “tipping point” in their concern about waiting lists and accident and emergency services.

And this focus makes perfect sense for Labour. It just won’t work as well as they might hope.

Why does it make sense? Firstly because there is record pessimism about the future of the NHS. Our poll from March showed that 62 per cent of those surveyed expect the NHS to get worse in the next five years, the highest we’ve measured – and by far the most negative outlook for any public service.

It also makes sense because this is one the very few important issues where Labour has a lead over the Conservatives. In our monthly issues index for February, more than half of voters said it was one of the most important issues facing the country, the highest level since 2002. And it’s always in the top three issues that people say determine their vote.

And Labour still have a lead on the NHS: 36 per cent say they have the best policies of all the parties, with the Conservatives on just 23 per cent.

So why will it not work well for Labour? 

First, Labour’s lead on the issue is nothing like it was, even in the relatively recent past. In 2012, 46 per cent thought Labour were the best party for the NHS, and only 16 per cent thought the Conservatives were. In previous decades, Labour was up above 50 per cent at various points. They’ve lost a lot of ground as the originator and defender of the NHS.

Second, while Corbyn is right to claim that issues like public services have more day-to-day impact on people, our relationship with Europe is uniquely dominant right now. Outside a major political upheaval like Brexit or an economic meltdown, there is no doubt that the NHS would have topped concerns over the winter, as we’ve seen it do many times before. We have a special relationship with the NHS, and when we feel it’s under threat it can trump all other concerns - as in the early 2000s, when more than 70 per cent said it was the key national issue. But instead, Brexit tops the list right, with the EU higher in people’s minds than at any point since we started asking the question in 1974.

In any case, it’s not even clear that a real tipping point has been reached in our health care concerns. While our worry for the future is extremely high, current satisfaction and overall ratings are still high, and not declining that much. This is shown across lots of surveys of individual health services: ratings are slipping, but slowly. And this is brought home by international comparisons – we’re the most worried about the future of our health service out of 23 countries, but we’re also among the most satisfied currently. We’re a country-level example of the “worried well”.

And this leads to a fourth point – expectations of public services seem to be shifting. The narrative of the necessity of spending cuts is so firmly embedded now that expectations of the level of service we can afford as a country may have moved for the long-term.

We asked in 2012 what percentage of planned spending cuts people thought had been made. Of course, this is an impossible question to answer definitively, but it is a useful gauge of how long a road people think we have ahead. Back then, people thought 40 per cent of planned cuts had already happened. Now, five years later, we think it’s still just 37 per cent. The idea of semi-permanent austerity has taken hold.

Of course, this could still provide a key leverage point for Labour, if people think there is a way to avoid this future. But the key point is that the cuts are not biting at a personal level for large proportions of the population, rather they are concentrated among quite a small proportion of people. So, back in 2012, 32 per cent said they had been affected by cuts to public services – by 2017 this had actually declined to 26 per cent. No cumulative, growing resentment at the personal impact of cuts - in fact, the opposite. 

And similarly, back in 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts on them and their families. But by 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. 

We are constantly scanning for the “tipping point” that the Labour MP Jon Ashworth has identified. It may come suddenly, and if it comes it seems most likely it will be the NHS that shifts the balance. But there’s no sign yet, and that makes Labour’s message that much more difficult to land. 

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