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16 June 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 12:32pm

The other reason the government U-turned on free school meals

After the 2019 election, many more Tory MPs represent seats with high numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals.

By Ben Walker

The government’s decision to continue providing free school meals throughout the summer is rightly being portrayed as a spectacular victory for footballer Marcus Rashford, who has campaigned for support to be continued.

But this U-turn is also a consequence of the collapse of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ last year.

The Conservatives’ spectacular gains in Labour’s northern heartlands created Tory seats in areas where the policy is important.

A total of 1.3 million pupils in England – just over one in ten of the country’s school-age population –  are eligible for free school meals. But this is not spread evenly across the country. Individual schools in Lambeth, Liverpool, Wiltshire and Wolverhampton, for instance, have eligibility levels as high as 80 per cent.

Before the 2019 election, fewer than a quarter of constituencies with higher-than-average levels of free school meal eligibility were represented by a Conservative MP. After the election, that jumped to more than a third. 

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In all the Conservatives gained 32 seats where above-average numbers of pupils qualified for the scheme. Nineteen were in the North and 12 were in the Midlands.

One of those Tory gains was Birmingham Northfield, where 35.8 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals – the highest level of any English constituency. Walsall North and Blackpool South – which also have very high levels of eligibility – were also gained by the Conservatives.

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Constituencies with above-average levels of children on free school meals

None of this is to downplay the scale of Rashford’s achievement, or the power of the social media campaign he unleashed. What it shows is that having former Labour seats, Conservative MPs now represent the concerns of former Labour voters. If they are to hold those seats, the party will need to exercise more pragmatism and we may see more U-turns.

Share of pupils eligible for Free School Meals by constituency