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.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Scottish Nationalist ranks

The First Minister is facing pressure to talk less about independence - and bring on new talent in her party.

She so recently seemed all-powerful, licensed to reign for as long as she chose, with the authority to pursue the return of our national sovereignty. We would then have the ability to strike our own deals on our own terms, a smaller, smarter, leaner nation freed from the stifling constraints of partnership with a much larger neighbour. There was, she repeatedly told us, nothing to be afraid of.

Now, suddenly, she is the victim of her own miscalculation: having misread the public mood, having raced too far ahead of moderate opinion, she finds herself at bay. The voters have delivered a public humiliation, while an opposition party until recently lampooned as unelectable is on the march. There is, suddenly, talk of her departure sooner rather than later.

Yes, this is a tough time to be Nicola Sturgeon…

Let’s not overstate it. The position of Scotland’s First Minister is considerably more secure than that of the UK’s Prime Minister. Theresa May wants out as soon as is feasible; Sturgeon, one suspects, will have to be dragged from Bute House. Sturgeon retains enough respect among the public and support among her colleagues to plough on for now. Nevertheless, things are not what they were before the general election and are unlikely ever to return to that happy state.

It’s all because of Scexit, of course. Sturgeon’s unseemly sprint for the indy finishing line left enough Scottish voters feeling… what? Mistreated, taken for granted, rushed, patronised, bullied… so much so that they effectively used June 8 to deliver a second No vote. With the idea of another referendum hanging around like a bad headache, the electorate decided to stage an intervention. In just two years, Sturgeon lost 40 per cent of her Westminster seats and displaced half a million votes. One could almost argue that, by comparison, Theresa May did relatively well.

For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Nationalist ranks. Tommy Sheppard, a former Labour Party official who is now an influential left-wing SNP MP, published an article immediately after the general election calling on the First Minister to ‘park’ a second referendum until the Brexit negotiations are complete. There are others who believe the party should rediscover its talent for the long game: accept the public mood is unlikely to change much before the 2021 devolved elections, at which point, even if the Nats remain the single largest party, Holyrood might find itself with a unionist majority; concentrate on improving the public services, show what might be done with all the powers of an independent nation, and wait patiently until the numbers change.

There are others – not many, but some – who would go further. They believe that Sturgeon should take responsibility for the election result, and should be looking to hand over to a new generation before 2021. The old guard has had its shot and its time: a party with veterans such as Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell in the key jobs looks too much like it did 20 years ago. Even the new Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has been on the scene for donkey’s. There are more who believe that the iron grip the First Minister and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, have on the party is unhealthy – that Murrell should carry the can for the loss of 21 MPs, and that he certainly would have done so if he weren’t married to the boss.

The most likely outcome, given what we know about the First Minister’s nature, is that she will choose something like the Sheppard route: talk less about independence for the next 18 months, see what the Brexit deal looks like, keep an eye on the polls and if they seem favourable go for a referendum in autumn 2019. The question is, can a wearied and increasingly cynical public be won round by then? Will people be willing to pile risk upon risk?

As the hot takes about Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election performance continue to flood in, there has been a lot of attention given to the role played by young Britons. The issues of intergenerational unfairness, prolonged austerity and hard Brexit, coupled with Corbyn’s optimistic campaigning style, saw a sharp rise in turnout among that demographic. Here, Scotland has been ahead of the curve. In the 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign and its can-do spirit of positivity inspired huge enthusiasm among younger Scots. Indeed, only a large and slightly panicked defensive response from over-65s saved the union.

That brush with calamity seems to have been close enough for many people: many of the seats taken from the Nats by the Scottish Tories at the general election were rural, well-to-do and relatively elderly. The modern electorate is a fickle thing, but it remains rational. The Corbynites, amid their plans for total world domination and their ongoing festival of revenge, might bear that in mind.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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