As more and more people go to foodbanks across the UK, no group has used them more this year than politicians.
They visit and talk about foodbanks not because they themselves need the food, but because there is a great deal of political capital to be made in foodbanks.
Last Christmas was the turning point. PMQs on the 19th of December, where Ed Miliband claimed foodbanks were an indictment of the government’s welfare policy, showed that foodbanks were widespread and well known enough to carry national, political weight.
Like it or not, the Trussell Trust is no longer a small, regional charity seeking simply to help vulnerable people. It is now a national voice on an emotive and deeply partisan issue. Foodbanks have been visited by MPs and councillors so much recently that organisers must be bored of politicians.
Even when they can’t be there in person, the political twittersphere is alive with endorsements and references to foodbanks, both individually and as a movement.
Politicians like to associate with them because, in themselves, they are wholly virtuous and admirable – a bit like British soldiers in Afghanistan. Public figures fall over themselves to express what a marvellous, brave job they are doing.
In the background though, a bitter debate goes on about whether they should be there at all and whether the government is conducting the war properly.
Insterestingly, the Trussell Trust appears to be leaning to the Left. Chris Mould attended the Unite union foodbank and has been tweeting #onenation. The Trust itself has been retweeting left wing columnist Polly Toynbee.
Of course, this characterisation is slightly unfair. The Trust is a largely apolitical organisation and the vast majority of their tweets and activities have no political content. Ultimately, they’re interested in feeding hungry people and will align themselves with whoever is most committed to that end.
Labour MPs are far more conscientious in visiting and supporting foodbanks and, importantly, making sure people know about it on twitter. Sadiq Khan (Shadow Justice secretary and MP for Tooting and Balham), Luciana Berger (Labour MP for Liverpool Wavetree) Tessa Jowell are two high profile MPs who are vocal supporters of foodbanks in their constituency. There are plenty more. Look at #foodbank and you’ll see a good number of Labour politicians and socialist sentiment but few Tories.
When David Cameron did visit a he was slammed for it in the left wing press. To my mind, this criticism is only partly justified. Not meeting any actual users was flippant but he should be commended for actually going and not turning it into self serving media circus.
Labour’s ownership of foodbanks may seem natural. They remain the ‘party of the poor’ and, as a result, there are many more foodbanks in Labour than Tory constituencies. On the other hand though, non state, Christian charity is the core of traditional Conservative values and the essence of the much maligned ‘Big Society’. It is interesting to read the blogposts of Conservative councillor Harry Phibbs, who argues just this – that the Tories are the natural party of foodbanks.
It is neither inherent nor preordained that foodbanks are associated with the Left rather than the Right. Labour happen to be the party in opposition at the moment they are flourishing and are much better at supporting them.