A dream of quality, without equality

No-one would want to deny a party newly in power its right to a little idealism, even whilst they themselves paint a picture of austerity. With this in mind, new Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith has been drawing attention to his proposal for all food purchased by the public sector to be locally sourced, healthy and organic. The rationale is that the public sector’s £2billion food budget could be used for the government to set an example and provide a real boost to the producers of such food. Not lost on the MP for Richmond Park is the potential for success in applying this policy to school meals. A stimulus to local economies and farming, less pollution caused by less air miles, kids eating their greens and understanding better where their food comes from; I can’t think of a reason for opposing this as such. But how many British schoolchildren will actually benefit from such enlightened thinking?

It’s worth pointing out that during the recent election campaign, the GMB union called on the Labour Party to adopt a policy of providing free school meals to all primary school children. A last ditch attempt at egalitarianism to save a dying administration it may have been, but the union’s campaign highlights an important fact: many children in this country often do not get a proper nutritious meal during the course of a day and some may go for days without eating anything substantial at all. An unbelievable but true fact all of us need to wake up to, especially as we are living in the fifth richest country in the world. However wherever you look across the country there are Tories and Lib Dems that are against this idea because of the financial cost.

Mr Goldsmith has apparently said that he’ll resign his seat if his proposal isn’t taken up which is a noble stance in light of the seeming lack of principle displayed by some MPs in the last parliament. However it is clear that for this policy to mean anything it surely has to reach all children. It’s not necessarily true that such food will make school meals more expensive to produce if it is locally sourced and organic – there are plenty of books and TV chefs that will vouch for that. But what’s the point of school canteens offering such meals if the kids can’t afford them, anymore than they could afford processed burger and chips? Even putting aside the issue of fairness and equality, for this green revolution to really work it surely has actually reach and influence as many people as possible.

By providing free locally sourced, healthy meals to all children it could help influence and educate a whole generation as to the benefits of eating green (in both senses of the word) for generations to come. But this will require some proper public investment. It’s time for the government to join up the dots: quality of food and equality of opportunity for our children are not mutually exclusive ideals; for one to work you have to enable the other. If Mr Goldsmith grasps this reality, amends his campaign and wins, then that would at least be something worth keeping his seat for.

The Times, they are a-crazy

by False Economy

Anatole Kaletsky, Editor-at-large of The Times, today turns the table on those who believes the fiscal crisis has been caused by the banking bailout. It is not greedy bankers, but rather greedy old people. Citing the upcoming retirement of the first wave of baby boomers, and David Willet’s book on the subject, he argues that “[t]he credit crunch and recession did not create the present pressures on public borrowing and spending. They merely brought forward an age-related fiscal crisis that would have become inevitable, as by 2020 the majority of the baby-boomers will be retired.”

There is something to be said for Kaletsky’s argument. An ageing population is a challenge to society on many fronts: cultural, economic, and certainly fiscal. But is it a bad thing that people are living longer? Of course not. While they were constructing a welfare state safety net and accruing decent pensions, the baby boomers were also responsible for creating a sustained period of unprecedented economic growth, ushering in age of prosperity which has benefited society in countless ways. What is the point of economic growth if not to help fund more comfortable lifestyles at the end of our working life? Kaletsky also makes the classic mistake of not considering public spending growth per capita. Older people cost the taxpayer more, but will today’s retirees actually get more than their predecessors, or are there just more of them? The latter is far closer to the truth than Kaletsky lets on.

There is also the bizarre claim that “pensions, health, and long-term care” are protected and even “ring-fenced” entitlements. On the first two, Kaletsky may have a point. But long-term care? Ring-fenced? I must have missed something, because as far as I can tell, all of the main political parties have been scratching their heads for years trying to work out how we will pay for long-term care in the future. Despite the immense political power exercised by old people, as Kaletsky seems to think, nobody wants to stump up the money to fund a sustainable solution to the care crisis.

Kaletsky ends his article with the “modest proposal” that when people reach the age of 75 or 80, they should no longer be able to vote. If depriving UK citizens of their most basic right as members of a democratic society is “modest”, I dread to think what “radical” looks like.

If there is a “war between the generations”, as Kaletsky claims, then it is a war declared not by the baby boomers, but by the neoliberal elite desperate for somebody other than themselves to blame for the mess they have made. An ageing population is a problem, as well as an opportunity, but it is one that will be solved by forging sound inter-generational relations rather than the kind of childish nonsense being peddled by The Times.