October 7, 2022

Richmond Foodbank. Two words that should keep the Tory faithful up at night. Six months ago, I moved parish from the inner city to leafy southwest London. This is the land of cricket on the green, 4×4’s, private schools, and streets of fine Victorian mansions.

What I didn’t expect was a local food bank, which last year gave out more than 5,000 emergency supplies to hungry people. Statistically, Richmond has some of the lowest rates of poverty of any London borough. If there is a food bank here, the Tories are toast.

Last Sunday was our Harvest Festival. We brought hoop spaghetti, toothpaste, and health care products to the altar. At lunchtime, 60 of us sat down in the church hall for shepherd’s pie and trifle, raising several hundred pounds for the food bank. Every spud peeled, every carrot scraped was another reminder of the failure of trickle-down economics. If people are going hungry in an area as posh as this, I don’t give the Tories a sniff of winning the next election.

Not that the food was that appealing at the Tory Party Conference in Birmingham, judging by the looks of those who laboured through their tasteless Starbucks sandwiches. The tone was funereal. They have lost their appetite, not just for bread and cheese, but for government too apparently.

Pacing about those gloomy halls, it was good to see the friendly face of Danny Kruger, MP for Devizes, and, not unrelated to the purpose of my trip, the son of restaurateur and food critic Prue Leith. I told him I was at conference to argue for restoring Britain’s 0.7% aid target: once an international standard of generosity for rich countries. He smiled at me, sympathetically: “Good luck with that.” The Tories had other things on their minds. Much more pressing issues, apparently.

But what could be more pressing than this? “Do we care, do we act, and do we lead? The promise of 0.7% meant that we — Global Britain — answered ‘yes’ to all three,” said David Cameron in 2020. But the current Tory party seems to have forgotten all this precisely at a time when it is most important.

“Growth, growth, growth” intoned the Prime Minister at her conference speech, obviously pleased with herself at presenting so succinctly the holy trinity of Trussian economics. With harvest hymns still ringing in my ears — “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land” — I wondered how her philosophy of growth related to the growth of real living things — being rooted, being fed and watered, being tended. For her, growth seems to be the thing that happens when the gardener, aka the state, stops interfering. But the state of my garden tells me that when you do this, the weeds will always win. It is not insignificant that the people most upset by the bright idea of “economic development zones”, which means tax breaks and planning liberalisation, are those who point out the environmental impact. There is good growth and bad growth.

To be fair, the Tories can’t be blamed entirely for the current crisis of food insecurity. Putin’s wicked invasion of Ukraine has devastated the breadbasket of Europe. Russians have been deliberately shelling agricultural lands with incendiary shells, burning down crops, using food and hunger as a weapon of war. Because of this — and yes, for other reasons too — 40 million people in the horn of Africa are on the edge of starvation. In many places, fertiliser has become too expensive for the poor to buy, leading to low crop yields. Farmers in Somalia are surrounded by the white bones of their dead cattle. Many have abandoned their fields looking for more fertile lands. But despite their arduous travels, they find the famine wherever they go.

I sat on a panel with Vicky Ford, the new Development Minister and Emma Revie, the CEO of the Trussell Trust, which runs the Richmond Foodbank along with 1,300 others in the UK. A handful of people attended our event. Outside the meeting, groups of young men in the ubiquitous Tory uniform of blue suits and open-neck white shirts walked past at West Wing pace, obviously going somewhere terribly important. But they weren’t coming in here.

I do believe Vicky Ford gets it. She was off to Ethiopia on Tuesday. But there were few answers to the challenges that now face the poorest people in the world. New technology could be leveraged to help, she explained. And the Qatari’s are being very generous too. The Tories have promised that they will return to the 0.7% target once the economy is back on track. “Good luck with that,” I said, perhaps a little too sharply. “Be nice,” replied the Minister. But I am not in the mood for being nice about this. We should be far angrier.

In 2015, the United Nations launched the Sustainable Development Goals, which aimed to eliminate hunger by 2030. But we are nowhere near hitting that goal: in fact, global hunger levels have risen since 2015. Today, nearly 9% of the world’s population are hungry.

The Harvest Festival looks very different in church these days. Instead of giant leeks and corn dollies, we pile up baked beans in front of the altar. And when we pray “give us this day our daily bread”, we think of combine harvesters in Ukraine dodging enemy tank fire and desperate families trekking across the Sudan, with a child in one hand and a packet of seeds in another.

But we also think of families in Britain struggling to afford their weekly food shop. Hunger has never just been an issue for the developing world, and now that it’s found its way to the door of places like Richmond, the tin-eared Conservative party will finally have to take note. It may be politically convenient to ignore starving children in Sudan, but it’s foolhardy for politicians to turn their backs on a hungry electorate. If the party has any hope of winning the next election, it will have to find itself a moral compass.