No.10 fails the comms test again, this time on free school meals

23 September 2020

DRD Associate, Samantha Beggs, takes a look at the Government’s handling of the free school meals debate and considers how No.10 could have handled their comms better

The nasty Tories are letting children go hungry… or at least, that’s what everyone on Twitter is saying. On Wednesday, Labour used its allotted opposition day debate to get behind Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign to end child food poverty. The debate, and subsequent vote on the motion to provide 1.4m disadvantaged children in England with £15-a-week food vouchers during holidays until Easter 2021, was voted down by the Government by a majority of 61.

Naturally, the headlines were scathing of the Government’s position. Keyboard warriors took to social media to express their disbelief – even Nigel Farage was doing the morning studio rounds to describe the vote as “mean and wrong.”  How could the Government get it so wrong? Are there really only five Conservative MPs who support the campaign? Unlikely. So, why vote against it?

Just political posturing?

The answer is more about parliamentary procedure and the nature of opposition day debates, rather than the specific topic itself. First and foremost, opposition day debates mean absolutely nothing (from a legislative perspective) as they are non-binding, even if passed by a vote. Whilst the Government normally controls and sets the business, such days provide a rare but important opportunity for the opposition parties to set the parliamentary agenda, raise important issues and seek to put pressure on the Government. A government Minister must also attend the House and respond to the motion.

Since the opposition parties only get 20 days in each session for these debates, they’re generally keen to use them to criticise weaknesses or gaps in government policy. Sometimes, as was the case on Wednesday, the opposition will pick popular, headline-grabbing topics portraying themselves in a positive light while highlighting how ‘wrong’ the Government’s got it. In these instances, particularly with a safe majority, the Government will always vote against the motion – otherwise it’s admitting  ‘fault’ or is ‘giving in’ to opposition demands.

In the same way that Private Members’ Bills rarely have any hope of becoming legislation, opposition day debates are generally just a stick for the opposition to beat the Government with. They also provide opposition parties with some great ammunition for their election literature. Expect to see ”Tories don’t care about starving children” (or similar) in Labour’s next campaign leaflets.

Just a matter of procedure

So why vote against them? Why not just abstain? Again, that’s a procedural issue. Losing a vote on an Opposition Day debate is politically embarrassing. Remember when Brown’s government lost a vote over the right of former Gurkhas to settle in the UK? MPs of the governing party are whipped to attend these debates and vote against the motion to avoid such shame. However, under Theresa May’s minority government, to avoid defeats, MPs were instructed not to vote. This resulted in many parliamentarians, including the former speaker, accusing the government of showing insufficient respect for Parliament.

Get your comms in order!

As things stand, the governing party will always find itself in this situation – looking heartless, out of touch or just downright wrong. The opposition will always be in a position to remind the electorate of that. But with that in mind, surely, it’s about time the Government sorted its comms out in relation to these debates. Was this policy really worth the bad headlines? Whilst nobody has the benefit of hindsight, No.10 should’ve (and could’ve) done better. In just a matter of days, Rashford’s petition had over a quarter of a million signatures. This was the window of opportunity, before Labour had embraced it as ‘their’ policy, for government to take control of the narrative. They could have come up with a genuine compromise that would have appeased Rashford and the Opposition and communicated that well.

Although the Government tabled an amendment to tell people that additional money has been pumped into Universal Credit and “substantial support provided by the Government to children worth £550 million annually”, it sounds defensive – as a reason for not going further – and it’s not exactly ‘tangible’. By this stage, the Government had already lost control of the narrative but some sort of compromise here could have, at least, changed some of the headlines.

That said, there are a very limited number of opposition days in each session, and not all are critical. In the grand scheme of things, the Government might decide it’s not worth the fight and in this instance, it’s got another four years for the electorate to move on. That won’t always be the case, and whether voters forget or not is debateable – people are still talking about the last government’s voting record on NHS pay rises, a result of another opposition day debate in 2017. One thing that is for sure is that Conservative MPs can expect to have very full postbags in the coming days!