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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How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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