Show Hide image

I love you, Jamie Oliver, but your sugar tax idea is classist

Although the sentiment behind the chef's sugar tax proposal is well meaning, it would mostly penalise working-class people.

I have never been one to keep quiet about my Jamie Oliver love. Whether it's owning at least nine of his cook books (I see you, Naked Chef) or writing articles defending him, something about his pure, unbridled enthusiasm for culinary delights just gets to me. I attribute it largely to the fact that, in the world of 30 Minute Meals or Jamie and Jimmy's Friday Night Feast, I find a respite from the realities of the world. Jamie’s world is a world where everyone drinks pomegranate and lime water, lens flare abounds, and sadness and poverty don't exist.

Much to my profound sadness, I do not live in the high-res-macro-shot-tricolour-veg utopia of Jamie Oliver. I live in the world where tax credits are about to be cut, hitting both the poorest and mainly the poorest with children (the vast majority of tax credits claimed are child tax credits), and where NHS workers face an assault on their working hours. A world where, a white, privately-educated man told the prime minister of Jamaica, a nation we exploited, to just, you know, get over slavery.

Perhaps the depressing state of the UK shouldn’t have anything to do with Jamie Oliver and his culinary kingdom, but when government legislation is becoming increasingly vicious towards the poor, Jamie’s call for a sugar tax is both pernicious and misplaced. Here’s why: the sugar tax will just be a tax on the poor. It will be a tax that, in effect, makes very little difference to the lives of the middle classes. Although its main aim would be to disincentivise, it would most likely just penalise.

The argument against the sugar tax is not one against regulations or taxation as a whole; it is an argument against a tax that would be unfairly exacerbating the already heavy burden this government is placing on the poor. This tax would be one that either capitalises on the poverty that has forced people into poor diets in the first place, or restricts their already very limited freedom.

If our Lord and Saviour Jamie Oliver wants people to stop eating so much crap, he should campaign for better welfare. If he wants people to eat less sugar, he should fight for more breakfast clubs in schools so students don't go and buy a Galaxy at break because they're hungry. Campaign against the squeeze on the NHS and nurses' pay, so those families with working parents can afford your harissa chicken salads over another ready meal. Maybe the sugar tax would work, but if we’re living in a society where someone has to choose between having a Sprite and feeding their kid, I don’t think obesity is our biggest issue.

Jamie – I get it, you just want to help. I know you care about these things (lest we forget the moment when you burst into tears during a particularly gruelling episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution), but your efforts are misplaced. It would be wrong to presume that the malnutrition of Britain is simply a diet problem. This war against obesity is not a fizzy drinks issue: it’s a class issue. 

Show Hide image

Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.