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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Labour must learn the secrets of the Scottish Conservatives

 A Faustian pact with the SNP is not the short cut back to power some in Labour think it is. 

If Labour wants to recover as a political force, in Scotland or nationally, it must do the hard work of selling voters on a British, progressive party. But some in both the SNP and Labour sense a shortcut - a "progressive alliance"

Progressives might be naturally cautious about taking advice from a Conservative, but anybody covering Scottish politics for a Tory website is very familiar with life in the doldrums. And there are a few things to be learnt down there. 

First, as Scottish Labour members will tell anyone who listens, the SNP talk an excellent progressive game, particularly on any area where they’re in opposition. But in government the Nationalists have simply navigated by two stars - differentiating Scotland from England to the greatest extent possible, and irritating as few people as possible, all in order to engineer support for independence.

Independence itself would, according to nearly all objective assessments, involve a sharp adjustment in Scottish public expenditure, and painful consequences for those who depend on it. Yet this does little to dent the SNP’s enthusiasm. All their political reasoning is worked out backwards from that overriding goal.

There is no reason to believe that the nationalists' priorities at Westminster would be any different. Joining the SNP in "progressive alliance" would be a poison pill for Labour. 

For the larger party would be in a double bind. Govern cautiously, respecting the relative weakness of the left in England and Wales, and the SNP will paint its coalition partner as "Red Tory", taking credit for whatever was popular in Scotland and disowning the rest. 

But drive through a more radical programme with SNP votes (presumably after dismantling "English Votes for English Laws"), and risk permanently alienating huge sections of the electorate south of the border. Those Miliband-in-Salmond’s-pocket pictures would be just the start.

Scottish Labour is familiar with the reality of the SNP in power. But that's not to say it isn't making its own mistakes. Too often, it tries to strike the same sort of bargain with small-n nationalism.

Constitutionally-focused politics isn’t kind to social democrats, as Irish Labour will tell you. So it’s clear why Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale would wish to believe that there is a split-the-difference constitutional position which would, as this article has it, offer “an escape from the black and white world of referendum politics”.

But incantations about "federalism" and "home rule" aren’t going to save Labour. They’re an attempt to appeal to everybody, and are neither intellectually nor politically adequate to the challenge facing the party.

Holyrood is already one of the most powerful sub-state legislatures on earth, so "federalism" is at this point mostly a question of how England is run. If “more powers” were actually going to stop nationalism, we’d have seen some evidence of it during the last 20 years.

And as political tactics go, it won’t woo back voters whom the SNP have persuaded that independence is a progressive cause, but it will alienate voters who care about the union.

Here, Scottish Labour should learn from the Conservatives. The leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, realised that voters were always going to have better non-Conservative options on the ballot paper than the Tories, so there was no way back that didn’t involve selling voters on Conservatism. A new Conservatism in important respects, but nonetheless a British, centre-right party.

Labour too must recognise that they are never going to be a more appealing option than the SNP to voters who believe separatism is a good idea. Instead, they must sell voters on what they are: a British, centre-left party. The progressive case for Britain, and against independence, is there to be made.

Labour needs to sell the United Kingdom, and the Britishness underlying it, as a progressive force. As long as left-wing voters remain attached to independence and the SNP, despite all the implications, Labour will be marginalised and the union in danger. 

Henry Hill is assistant editor of ConservativeHome, and has written their Red, White, and Blue column on Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland since 2013. Follow him @HCH_Hill.