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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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser