Boris Johnson’s most potent opposition: Marcus Rashford

  How the Manchester United striker changed British politics — for good. LONDON — Marcus Rashford was disappointed. It was a Thursday in Oct...

 

How the Manchester United striker changed British politics — for good.

LONDON — Marcus Rashford was disappointed.

It was a Thursday in October, and the Manchester United and England footballer was facing a setback.

The previous day, MPs in the U.K. parliament had voted down a motion organized by the Labour Party backing Rashford’s campaign to provide free school meals to poor children during school holidays, a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of families in England at the sharp end of the coronavirus pandemic’s economic fallout.

It wasn’t just the defeat in the House of Commons that grated on him — but the tone of the debate. What had been for Rashford a simple matter of getting food onto the plates of hungry children had been dragged firmly into the realms of ugly, messy, party politics. Labour attacked the Tories. The Tories asked what Labour had ever done about the problem. Rashford himself was accused by one Conservative MP of “celebrity virtue-signaling.” Another told him on Twitter that this stuff was “not as simple as you make out Marcus.”

That frustrating Thursday, Rashford was visiting a new Manchester warehouse acquired by Fareshare, an organization he had supported throughout the pandemic, which redistributes thousands of tons of surplus food from supermarkets to charities. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham was there too, fresh from his own bruising battle with Westminster over the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on local businesses in the city.

“I met him the day the MPs had been saying what they said,” Burnham recalled. “I said: ‘I hope you don’t pay any attention to it. Because they don’t know what you’re all about. They think you’re like them, and they’re trying to define in you in their own terms, within their world. But 99.9 percent of the public are going to ignore that completely because they know you’re nothing to do with that that world.’”

Rashford’s mother Melanie Maynard — his “inspiration” according to someone who knows them both — was at the warehouse that day too (in fact it was being named after her, in recognition of her own long-standing charity work.) Seeing his mum and meeting the volunteers helped Rashford forget politics and get back to basics, said another who was with him that day.

That evening, at home in Manchester, he decided to define the debate in his own terms. Picking up reports from around the U.K. — via social media — of cafes, restaurants and other local businesses responding to the MPs’ vote by making their own direct offers of free food to struggling families, Rashford began retweeting the stories to his 3.5 million followers. The quick-fire publicity encouraged still more businesses and even local councils to take up the mantle — and Rashford retweeted them too.

Twenty-four hours and many, many tweets later, the story was leading news bulletins. Two weeks later, the government U-turned, offering meals and activities in the holidays to all children in receipt of free school lunches, until Christmas 2021.

Rashford got a call from Prime Minister Boris Johnson after Manchester United’s November 7 match against Everton F.C. to explain the plan. The footballer thanked the prime minister, posted a gracious message on social media — and then said he wasn’t done yet.  

“That’s the way change happens,” Burnham observed later. “When you get a sense the country is deciding something different to what everyone’s just voted for in parliament.”

Holding No. 10’s feet to the fire

In 2020, Marcus Rashford showed an uncanny knack for harnessing public support, twice creating unbearable political pressure on No. 10 Downing Street and forcing U-turns on the same issue — first, on the provision of free school meals in the summer holidays, then forcing the announcement of the £400 million holiday meal and activity program, which will support low-income families in England until the end of next year.

In Downing Street, there is no doubt that Rashford is now a major figure in British public life whom they can’t afford to ignore again. The U-turns were tacit acknowledgements that he’d been right all along on the free school meals question (“You think you have the right measures in place, when actually, given the unique situation this year, you need more support for people. This was one of those occasions,” said one senior aide.)

Now, issues championed by Rashford automatically go on No. 10’s agenda. “They are brought to our attention right at the center of government,” the aide said.

For many, Rashford’s success has been a bright spot in a dark year — but it could also become the start of something bigger.

With the U.K.’s post-COVID economic fallout only just beginning, the questions of social inequality and poverty at the core of his campaign are only likely to become more acute. In the 2010s, in response to a similarly grim economic outlook, Johnson’s predecessors pursued a policy of austerity that included significant reductions in social security support to the country’s poorest; such policies have been linked to an estimated increase of 600,000 children living in relative poverty in one of the world’s richest countries, compared with 2012.

Rashford, as a boy growing up in the Wythenshawe, Manchester, was at the sharp end of those statistics, about as far away from the corridors of power as it was possible to be. Today, with the U.K. government, like others round the world, once again facing questions about how to balance the books and rebuild, Rashford is no longer voiceless.

During the long fallout from the last economic crisis, debates around poverty in the U.K. were often colored by the idea that many of those reliant on social security were somehow feckless and underserving, “sleeping off a life on benefits” in the words of former Chancellor George Osborne. Rashford, with his open, matter-of-fact discussion of his own childhood experience of poverty, of how his mother worked three jobs but still couldn’t always afford to put food on the table, has given the public a different notion of what it is to be poor in 21st-century Britain. And this is now acknowledged in No 10.

Although the Treasury has signaled that the pandemic’s impact on government finances will have to be addressed sooner rather than later — either via increased taxes or spending cuts — in No. 10 there is a belief that any cutbacks that hit the country’s poorest in their pockets (as in the 2010s) are becoming less and less politically acceptable to voters. Those close to Johnson say that “equalizing opportunity” — the so-called leveling-up agenda — central to his pitch to voters in the 2019 election, but No. 10 also recognizes Rashford will now be “holding our feet to fire,” the senior aide said.

That — say those whose warnings about rising poverty in the U.K. have often been ignored — can only be a good thing. “It feels very, very different this time around [in comparison to the 2010s,]” said Helen Barnard, director of the 116-year-old poverty research charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Public concern about poverty had been growing even before the pandemic, she said, with a “softening” of some of the “more negative attitudes” that characterized the 2010s. The pandemic itself highlighted the central importance of low-paid workers — shop assistants, delivery drivers, care workers — to the functioning of society, Barnard said. “Then you had Marcus Rashford and his campaign.

“He has started from his own personal experience of poverty. He has then connected that with the direct experience of families now. That connection on a personal, empathetic level with other people’s experience makes it really powerful. And it makes it much harder to dismiss.”

Wythenshawe calling Westminster

Rashford was born in 1997 in Manchester. By the age of seven, football was a way of life. Neighbors recall watching him practicing on the small patch of grass outside his home in Wythenshawe. (Rashford now has a tattoo on his torso depicting just such a scene.)

The community Rashford knew then, and the family unit he grew up in, remain the core group of people in his life today. He still visits his old neighborhood frequently. His older brothers Dwaine Maynard and Dane Rashford, who used to pick him up from school and drive him to football practice, are now his on-field agents and advisers. The two companions who lived next door and hung out at the community center with him remain his best friends.  

Rashford’s mother Melanie raised the three boys, plus two older sisters, alone, but with the wider support network of the community.

Asked in a BBC interview in June whether he had memories of being hungry as a child, Rashford answered: “Yeah of course, but I also understood. Maybe it was just part of me growing up, I just knew how hard my mum was working. I’d never moan … if there’s food on the table, there’s food on the table. If there’s not, I had friends that understood … maybe it was possible for me to go to their house, to get some food.”

Rashford’s motivation for kickstarting his food poverty campaign during the pandemic was simple. When in March he heard about schools closing during lockdown, he immediately cast his mind back to his own situation as a child. What would be happening to the children who, like he had, depended on free school lunches, perhaps their only certain meal of the day?

He wasn’t completely new to the role of celebrity activist. He had already begun working with Fareshare and the year before had become involved in charity work supporting Manchester’s homeless population (his mum volunteered at a local drop-in center).

In April, he signed with entertainment and sports agency RocNation, to rejoin Kelly Hogarth — his off-field agent and another key person in his small circle of family and advisers — who had joined the firm a few weeks earlier. The agency, founded by Jay-Z, places an emphasis on social justice. In the U.S., it has campaigned on criminal justice reform.

But for Rashford and RocNation in the U.K., making a specific policy ask of the government was new territory, and they reached out for advice.

On the evening of June 10, Paul Gerrard, a former senior civil servant and campaign and public affairs director for the Co-op retail and services group, was about to call it a night when he spotted a tweet from Rashford asking for advice about who to speak to in government. With 20 years’ experience of the workings of Whitehall, Gerrard tweeted back to say he might be able to help. Rashford replied immediately and asked Gerrard to contact Hogarth and arrange a meeting.

Gerrard is one of several people who have helped inform Rashford’s campaign. Conservative MP and chair of the education select committee Robert Halfon offered guidance on parliamentary procedure. The work of the Food Foundation charity and the Leon restaurant co-founder Henry Dimbleby (who leads the government’s national food strategy) has also been influential.

But all those who have worked with the footballer say the same thing: The direction of the campaign and, crucially, the way it is communicated, comes directly from Rashford himself. A couple of days after the Twitter exchange, Hogarth showed Gerrard the draft of an open letter Rashford wanted to send to all MPs.

“Wembley Stadium could be filled more than twice with children who have had to skip meals during lockdown due to their families not being able to access food (200,000 children according to Food Foundation estimates),” the letter said. “As their stomachs grumble, I wonder if those 200,000 children will ever be proud enough of their country to pull on the England national team shirt one day and sing the national anthem from the stands. Ten years ago, I would have been one of those children, and you would never have heard my voice and seen my determination to become part of the solution.”

“I’ve written thousands of letters to civil servants and ministers,” Gerrard said, reflecting on his involvement with the campaign. “I looked at Kelly and said: ‘There’s nothing to change. That is Marcus’s voice.’” The letter drew immediate attention, leading to a BBC interview in which Rashford spoke about his childhood. The interview was seen by Johnson, and was a major factor in bringing about the first U-turn a few days later.

Not done yet

The voice that came across in that letter now carries serious weight.

Rashford was named a Member of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s honors list in October; in November he was chosen to spearhead the Times newspaper’s Christmas charity appeal. In December, a BBC documentary about his campaign is due to air four days before Christmas, to coincide with Rashford receiving a special award at the annual BBC Sports Personality of the Year event.

None of this means, however, that his campaigning is done, Hogarth said.

“If you ask him his absolute ambition, [it] is that children from day one are equipped with everything they need, in terms of resources, to succeed at whatever they want to do in life,” Hogarth said. “For him, day one, it should be an equal playing field. No child should be starting life 20 yards behind anyone else. He knows that policy change needs to be driven by that, to protect these families.”

Gerrard agreed. “There’s a resilience in him. It would have been quite easy to get that win in campaign terms and stop there. But he wanted to make things better for people like him, families like his — for good.”

That level of ambition suggests a campaigner who won’t be content with the specific policy wins of 2020 — and Rashford is increasingly showing signs of wanting to push for more systemic change.

“I really do wonder what the future holds for him,” said Burnham. “Fifteen years left as a player, campaigning alongside, his potential to make a difference in this country is immense. We’ll see where he takes it from here. But from what I know of him, I think it’s only the beginning.”

Rashford has already convened a taskforce of leading supermarkets and food companies that continues to pressure Downing Street on the implementation of Dimbleby’s national food strategy recommendations, including the extension of free school meals to all children whose families are in receipt of the main U.K. social security payment, universal credit. He has also extended his campaigning beyond food provision to form a “book club” with publisher Macmillan, which aims to get books into the homes of under-privileged children.

Then on the day of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spending review, Rashford appealed to the chancellor not to scrap a £20-per-week additional payment which, throughout the COVID crisis, has gone to people who receive universal credit. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates the expiration of the “uplift” (due in April) could send 700,000 people (including 300,000 children) into poverty.

“It feels to me as [Rashford] is, over time, starting to develop what a long-term solution actually looks like,” said Barnard of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. “He is on that road, and that sets it up for next year, which is going to be all about the long-term future of the country.

“All the talk of ‘building back better.’ Well what does that mean?” she added. “What kind of recovery will mean that families can feed themselves? What kind of jobs do people need to feel secure? What kind of education do we need, to allow people to recover? What kind of social security system do we need to avoid the next big boom in food banks?

“It is interesting to see how he is moving to that longer-term view — just at the right time.”

How far, then, can Rashford go? Greater Manchester Mayor Burnham (only half-joking) sees a future role in regional politics. “I’ve already said to him, when he’s ready, I will just vacate the chair — and I’ll be his campaign manager.”

But — as exemplified by that frustrating day in October — the world of pure politics doesn’t appeal to Rashford,. “He is very apolitical,” Hogarth said. “He has no affiliation with any party. In fact, he is not particularly attracted by party politics.”

But being apolitical doesn’t mean you can’t shape politics.

“For him this issue is a humanity issue,” added Hogarth. “Why are we allowing children to go to bed hungry? Of course the government play a role in that from the perspective of policy change, making sure there is a sustainable framework to catch these children.

“But for Marcus, everybody has a role to play in that.”

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