The BBC made comparisons between poverty today and Orwell's study. Photo: Flickr/John Shepherd
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Are there really similarities between The Road to Wigan Pier and poverty today?

After the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor criticised the BBC for making "hyperbolic" comparisons with George Orwell's 1937 exploration of poverty.

George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier has recently been the subject of a grand bust-up between the Chancellor and the BBC. The reference to the book by the BBC’s Assistant Political Editor Norman Smith in his coverage of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement led to accusations of bias and hyperbole

But how much has changed since Orwell’s 1937 social investigation? Recent Fabian Society research into the food system for the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty highlights a number of concerning similarities.

In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell draws the reader’s attention to a letter published in the New Statesman extolling the virtues of eating "oranges and wholemeal bread". Orwell responds viscerally, saying no "ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing," going on to say, "the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food". Orwell used food as a lens to look at how different people from different backgrounds and different incomes lived their lives.

This use of food as a lens into human experience continues in earnest today. Dr Wendy Wills, who will be giving evidence to the Fabian Commission’s second hearing, has written extensively on the juxtaposition between middle-class food priorities for presentation, self-preservation and health, and those of families on lower incomes who view food as a means to getting fed.

In the same book, Orwell presciently outlines another behavioural approach towards food that resounds today. While the "millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits", Orwell wrote, "when you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food". Instead, Orwell adroitly explained, "you want to eat something a little tasty".

And so this is true today. In the first evidence hearing of the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, the retail industry analyst Clive Black explained the recent trend of the rise of the "affordable treat". When times got harder over the recession and incomes were squeezed, Black posited, families cut back on expenditure. But despite cutting back on budgets, people still wanted a spot of indulgence from time to time. So they increasingly turned to a much cheaper alternative for leisure and luxury: food and drink. The result has been a burgeoning in the UK coffee trade, and a rise in revenue for fast food outlets and high-sugar, high-salt foods. So what Orwell called a desire for "something tasty", market analysts now call the "affordable treat".   

In general food terms a lot has changed since The Road to Wigan Pier. Martin O’Connell from the Institute for Fiscal Studies explained to the Commission’s first evidence hearing that food prices had fallen consistently over the last 30 years, only to jump back upwards during the recession. Over this time, according to Kantar data, the average time spent cooking and preparing meals has halved. There are now 8,000 fast food outlets in the city of London alone. And since Orwell’s book was published, average life expectancies have risen by nearly a decade.

But many issues today might seem familiar to Orwell. An increasing number of people are having to turn to emergency community food support to put a meal on the table. Levels of inequality are back up to a similar level as in the 1930s. And as Orwell put it in The Road to Wigan Pier in a way that could refer to the fast food dominated high streets of today, when times are hard, "there is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you".

Food is an integral fixture of all of our lives and a brilliant lens through which we view changes and trends in society. Over the coming months the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty will be asking how we can give more people access to nutritious, affordable, sustainable food in the UK. And while a few of us might find it uncomfortable to admit it, some of these issues are the same for us today as they were for Orwell when he wrote The Road to Wigan Pier.

Cameron Tait is Senior Researcher at the Fabian Society. The second evidence hearing for the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty will be held in parliament on Tuesday 9 December. The Commission will report in summer 2015

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.