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Interview Fighting poverty and hunger — with or without Labour

Speaking to the Star, BFAWU general secretary SARAH WOOLLEY calls on unions to back the right to food motion at TUC Congress 2021 while warning members have had enough of factional attacks from Labour

NEARLY six million adults and 1.7 million children in Britain were struggling to get enough food between September 2020 and February this year, according to MPs.

It is one of the highest food poverty rates in Europe, despite the country being the sixth richest in the world.

Just let that sink in. Hundreds of thousands of families, many with parents in full-time work, struggling to access a basic resource needed to sustain life in 21st-century Britain.

With even many food workers reporting they are too poor to purchase the products they produce, the bakers’ union — the BFAWU — is demanding action, via its innovative right to food campaign.

The union’s motion at the 2021 TUC Congress, taking place online this week, calls on the union confederation and its affiliated unions to support enshrining the right to food into law to make sure ministers have a legal responsibility to tackle the issue.

The motion was submitted before Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of fast-food chain Leon, published his national food strategy in July.

Commissioned by the Tory government in 2019, its stated aim was to transform England’s food system “from farm to fork” to prevent food poverty and align the nation’s diet with climate change goals.

Dimbleby’s recommendations — which included the extension of free school meals and a drive towards more plant-based eating — were welcome, but a legal right to food was conspicuous by its absence.

Ian Byrne, Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby and co-founder of the campaign, said he was disappointed by the strategy’s “lack of ambition,” while food campaigners slammed it as a “missed opportunity.”

In Scotland, pressure for change is also growing. Labour MSP Rhoda Grant lodged her right to food bill proposal to Holyrood last week.

A statutory right to access food was again missing from the SNP’s latest Programme for Government last week, but plans to “end the need for food banks” were promised.

Bakers’ union general secretary Sarah Woolley feels the campaign is now more important than ever, especially as next month’s cut to the temporary £20-a-week uplift to universal credit (UC) is set to plunge families into even more desperate poverty.

“It's going to be devastating,” Woolley warns. “We're going to see foodbank usage soar again because £20 doesn't seem a lot, but that can be the difference.

“In my childhood we had really, really tough times due to my dad having an accident at work and my mum having major back surgery.

“We used to have ‘posh teas,’ which were literally frozen burgers and peppercorn sauce and that was an exciting dinner because things were so tough.

“That’s why I’m so passionate about the campaign because I’ve been there.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement of an impending rise in National Insurance contributions, supposedly to boost the NHS and overhaul social care, will make things worse, Woolley stresses.

“I just don't understand the endgame of the Tories other than just to destroy the working class all together. What a kick in the teeth.”

She points out there are “so many quicker, simpler, less impactful ways” of raising the funds required, including making major multinations such as Amazon or Starbucks pay their fair share of tax.

“I think it should definitely be down to those that can afford to pay more. It shouldn’t be down to those on minimum wage struggling to get by. But the Tories aren’t going to do that as it’ll impact them as well.

 “I just don’t really understand why people aren’t screaming from the rooftops about it.

“I do appreciate there’s a hell of a lot going on with Covid, but I hope all the unions get on board [with the campaign] because representation of six million people is a pretty powerful thing.”  

The push comes at a pivotal time for the BFAWU’s relationship with Labour, a party it helped create more than a century ago.

Members will vote on disaffiliating from Labour at a special recall conference on September 28, the day before party leader Sir Keir Starmer gives his keynote speech at Labour’s annual conference in Brighton.

In a survey earlier this year, a majority of BFAWU members said the party no longer represents their interests, but the potentially seismic rupture has largely been prompted by Labour’s move to expel Ian Hodson, the union’s national president.

This is due to his perceived association with Labour Against the Witch-hunt (LAW). The group, which accuses Starmer’s top team of attempting a purge of socialists from Labour, was one of four “proscribed” by the party in July.

Any Labour members judged to be involved with their activities now stand to be thrown out automatically.

Hodson has already received his auto-expulsion papers and is currently in the process of challenging the move, perceived as an attack on the entire union, Woolley says.

Former BFAWU general secretary Ronnie Draper was also suspended by Labour in August 2016 during the failed coup against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

“We’ve got to do something,” Woolley argues. “We can’t just sit back and just say ‘It’s all right, we’re Labour through and through,’ because they’re not supporting us. There’s only so many bashings you can take.”

How does she feel about the prospect of members backing a severing of formal ties with Labour?

“We should, as a movement, work together with Labour — but we’re a trade union. A bit like [new Unite leader] Sharon Graham saying we want to concentrate on our members and politics should be secondary to that.

“We’ve got a pot of money that we’re giving to Labour. What can we do with that? We’ll put it into organising and making sure our branches have got the support they need. Let’s grow our union.

“We would still support MPs like Ian Byrne and Richard Burgon — one of our members — and we would still encourage members to be political, but we wouldn’t be tied into the constraints that can come with affiliation. There are positives and negatives.

“At the end of the day, it’s down to the members and their democratic right to decide.”

Woolley expresses genuine disappointment when revealing that Starmer has made no attempt to reach out to the union since becoming party leader in April 2020.

“Keir stood on a platform of unifying everybody, but all he seems to have done is just divide and expel people.

“Our class needs a party that is going to fight for it and hold Boris Johnson and his Tory chums accountable.

“The way things are going, I can see us having a Tory government for the next 10 years. I have a 16-year-old son and that scares me.”

Does she think there are any signs of hope?

“Remember last year when we coming out on a Thursday and clapping for the NHS? We were almost back at being communities again.

“I’m hoping these communities will come back out again in anger. I’m probably being really optimistic, but I’m just hopeful that people will realise that the neighbour they used to see on Thursdays is struggling even more.”

Let’s hope she’s right.

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