Last week Jeremy Corbyn unveiled Labour’s new pledge to provide free school meals for all primary school students in the UK, to be funded by additional VAT on private education fees, amounting to £1bn.
Referencing several recent studies by the National Centre for Social Research and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Corbyn argued that the programme would improve student productivity and further the universalism of benefits (to which he is ‘strongly wedded’).
We as Marxists applaud this policy, which will come as a much-needed boost to the material conditions of the most vulnerable in society. The fact that snooty, privately-run, for profit institutions will foot the bill is just the icing on the cake ‒ or the pudding on the lunch-tray.
However, this policy alone will not resolve the much deeper problems that capitalism has inflicted on the education system in Britain. Tory austerity measures have led to overcrowded classrooms and vicious pay slashes for staff ‒ particularly support workers and teaching assistants. These are the fundamental questions.
While Corbyn and the Labour Party are right to acknowledge the importance of appropriate nutrition in schools, the catastrophic state of the education sector demands far more radical measures.
Free meals will not help the Derby teaching assistants ‒ working under difficult conditions in special needs schools ‒ who recently swallowed pay reductions and forced redundancies because of austerity cuts imposed by a right-wing Labour council, for example. This travesty also highlights the need to fight the Labour right on a socialist platform, and empower ordinary members to democratically select representatives.
Nor will this measure reverse the privatisation of public schooling. Although the Tories were forced to U-turn on their forced academisation bill, private interests are still encroaching inexorably into the education sector through academies and free schools.
More to the point, the fact that Corbyn feels the need to justify feeding children from poor backgrounds by pointing out it will boost ‘productivity’ simply reveals how debased a system capitalism truly is. At present, nearly a third of parents on low incomes (below £25,000 a year) skip meals to feed their children ‒ a disgusting statistic.
You would think that any decent society ‒ particularly one as wealthy as modern Britain, which is quite capable of doing away with hunger altogether ‒ should consider feeding its citizens a moral imperative. Not so under capitalism.
In Corbyn’s modest proposal, we see the inability of reformism to resolve the foundational problems of capitalist society. While periods of capitalist boom could facilitate such concessions as free state education and school meals, the present era of crisis is eroding these basic social democratic gains.
As a result, any attempts to reform capitalism, at even a most minor cost to the rich, will be met with strong opposition from the ruling classes ‒ who will not countenance even the price of a few turkey twizzlers and cartons of milk for the children of poor families. Under capitalism, there can be no such thing as a free (school) lunch.
Only a bold, socialist programme can save our education system. Only the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the British economy, and a rational distribution of wealth by a democratic socialist state, can sustainably provide decent education for all.
Therefore, in addition to supporting genuine reforms, we must put pressure on Corbyn and the Labour Party to adopt the only programme that can make meaningful change to society: a programme to reject capitalism in favour of a sustainable, productive and equal system ‒ that is to say, socialism!
By Oliver Brotherton, KCL Marxists