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Where's the letter from 100 people living in poverty?

The election debate will be dominated by business leaders, bond markets, the Health Service and the public finances. The poor have been written out of the script.

Despite George Osborne’s recent claims, poverty in Britain is growing. Driven by an increasingly fragile jobs market, the rise of insecure work and a more punitive benefits culture, poverty levels have been rising for a generation.  Whatever measure is used, poverty levels are much higher than in the 1970s. They are also close to double the average of other rich countries.

Deprivation levels are higher today than in the late 1990s. Today more households live in a damp home while three times as many cannot afford to heat their home adequately. The numbers who skimp on meals is at a 30 year high. The poorest fifth in Britain are 40% poorer than their counterparts in Germany and 30% poorer than in France.

Britain is an increasingly divided nation. While affluence, comfort and an array of choice is the norm for many sections of society, daily hardship and struggle is the lot of a large and growing cluster of the population.  Close to a third  (more than three out of five them in work) not only lack a range of key, publicly-defined necessities, but suffer multiple, related problems as well, from damaged health, fragile finances and declining work and housing opportunities. On current trends this great divide in living standards is set to worsen over the next five years. Britain is now close to the American model, extreme affluence aside growing and deepening hardship, with the poorest facing a declining prospect of progressing beyond the barest of living standards.  

Growing affluence for most is, remarkably, associated with rising, rather than falling, hardship for a significant and growing minority.  This inverse relationship is being is driven by surging inequality, with the gains from growth over the last thirty bypassing the poorest, colonised instead by the top 1 percent and playing havoc with jobs, pay, housing and life chances for the poorest.

Ministers gloss over the realities of modern life for millions while creating a political culture that is more anti-poor rather than anti-poverty. Despite this, poverty is barely an election issue.  In the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher banned her cabinet and civil servants from using the ‘P` word.  Despite Michael Gove’s call on his party to become ‘warriors against the dispossessed`, the poor are again being written out of the political script.

In 2010, all the parties signed up to the 2010 Child Poverty Act, with its legal obligation to cutting poverty levels by 2020.  Yet in Government the coalition parties have simply ignored the Act and tried to redefine poverty levels downwards while dismissing rising deprivation as self-inflicted.

After the war, economic and social policy was guided by the ‘distribution question’. Yet the once central question of how we divide the cake – dismissed as ‘poisonous’ by one leading pro-market thinker  -  has simply been eliminated from economic thinking.  Today there is plenty of talk about inequality, but neither of the major parties has a clear strategy for closing the gap and reversing the rising poverty tide. Despite Gove’s call, the Conservatives promise a further weakening of Britain’s increasingly patchy safety net. Labour will slow the pace of retrenchment in welfare spending while offering a modest increase in the minimum wage and a bit more tax on the rich. Over the next five years, the existing anti-poor and pro-rich social and economic system is thus set to remain intact, still programmed to steer more and more of the cake to the wealthy few

If we are to reverse the rising poverty tide, we need a new direction, one that steers more of the cake to profits and less to wages, one that ends the culture of entitlement still at work in the City and company boardrooms and that tackles the issue of the over-concentration of private ownership in the UK. This means a much more direct challenge to the entrenched corporate and financial vested interests that continue to dictate large chunks of economic policy, while diminishing wider life chances.  

Poverty and inequality are two of the most urgent issues of the day. Yet, in today’s climate of political inertia, with its bias to the status quo and its fear of radical change, the kind of policies that would make a real difference are not even part of the election debate. Until that inertia is challenged, and the talk turned to action, poverty and inequality will continue to intensify.

Stewart Lansley is the author (with Joanna Mack) of Breadline Britain, The Rise of Mass Poverty, Oneworld.

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Byron burgers and bacon sandwiches: can any politician get away with eating on camera?

Memo to aspirant world leaders: eating in public is a political minefield.

Miliband’s sandwich. Cameron’s hot dog. Osborne’s burger. The other Miliband’s banana. As well as excellent names for up-and-coming indie bands, these are just a few examples of now infamous food faux pas committed by British politicians.

During his entire mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan refused to eat anything in public. When journalist Simon Hattenstone met him in his local curry house for the Guardian, the now-mayor didn’t eat a single bite despite “dish after dish” arriving at the table. Who can blame him? Though Ed Miliband had been pictured blunderingly eating a bacon sandwich an entire year earlier, the national furore around the incident had not yet died down. “He can make me look Clooneyesque or make me look like Ed eating a bacon sandwich,” Khan said of the photographer at the time.

Miliband’s bacon sandwich is now so infamous that I need offer no explanation for the event other than those words. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the photograph of Ed, lips curled and eyes rolling, as he tucks into that fateful sarnie. Yet politicians frequently bite off more than they can chew – why did Ed’s mishap inspire multiple headlines and an entire front page of The Sun?

Via Getty

“The momentum got behind the bacon sandwich story because he was awkward, it showed him in a light which was true - he was an awkward candidate in that election,” says Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at Cranfield University. “He didn’t come across right.”

The photograph of Miliband fit neatly within a pre-existing image of the politician – that he was bumbling, incompetent, and unable to take control. Similarly, when David Cameron was pictured eating a hot dog with a knife and fork months later, the story reinforced popular notions of him as a posh, out-of-touch, champagne-swilling old Etonian. Though Oxford-educated, two-kitchen Miliband is nearly as privileged as Cameron, and Brexit-inducing Dave equally as incompetent as Ed, the pictures would not gain the same popularity in reverse. There are many, many less-than-flattering pictures of Cameron eating, but they didn’t fit into a workable narrative.

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No one, for example, focused on the price of Ed’s sandwich. Purchased at New Covenant Garden Market, it was undoubtedly more expensive than Greggs’ £1.75 bacon roll – but no one cared. When George Osborne was pictured eating an £8 Byron burger whilst cutting £11.5 million from the British budget, however, the picture spoke to many. The then-chancellor was forced to explain that “McDonalds doesn't deliver”, although, as it turned out, Byron didn’t either.

“The idea was to try and display him in a good light – here's a guy eating a burger just like everyone else. The only problem was it was a posh burger and of course he didn't look like everyone else because he was spending ten quid on a burger,” explains Baines.

But Dave, Ed, and George are just the latest in a long, long line of politicians who have been mocked for their eating habits. Across the ocean, Donald Trump has been lambasted for liking his steak well done, while in 1976, Gerald Ford was mocked after biting into the inedible corn husk of a tamale. Why then, do politicians not copy Khan, and avoid being pictured around food altogether?

Via Getty

“Food connects everybody, food is essentially a connection to culture and the 'every person',” explains Baines. “[Nigel] Farage's appearance in the pub has definitely had a positive impact on how he's perceived by a big chunk of the working class electorate which is an important, sizeable group.” Though Cameron, too, has been pictured with pints, his undeniably weird grasp on the glass make the pictures seem inauthentic, compared to Farage whose pints are clearly at home in his hands. In America, Joe Biden managed to capture the same authenticity with an ice-cream cone.

“I think when it comes across badly is when it comes across as inauthentic,” says Baines. “If I were advising, I certainly wouldn't advise Theresa May to be seen in the pub having a pint, that would not shine with her particular character or style. But could Tim Farron come across better in that way? Possibly but it does have to be authentic.”

Food, then, can instantly make a politician seem in or out of touch. This is especially true when food connects to national identity. Tony Blair, for example, publicly claimed his favourite dish was fish and chips despite earlier saying it was fettuccine with olive oil, sundried tomatoes and capers. In the 1980s, Lord Mandelson allegedly mistook mushy peas for guacamole, insulting us all. In the States, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn’t been pictured with a hot dog, and there are entire articles dedicated to US politicians who eat pizza with a knife and fork. Again, the food fits a narrative – politicians out of touch with the common person.  

Then again, sometimes, just sometimes, no narrative is needed. We’d advise any candidate who seriously wants a shot in the 2017 General Election to not, under any circumstances, be pictured casually feeding a Solero to an unidentified young woman. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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