Life after community death: this food bank has a lesson for Labour
The Guardian, by Aditya Chakrabortty
Two women who restored pride to a blighted town can show Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues what a social movement could be used for.
I never expected to leave a food bank feeling optimistic. To visit a kitchen serving hundreds of free summer-holiday meals to kids who might otherwise go hungry – and come away pondering the lessons Westminster, and especially Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, should learn. But then, until last week, I hadn’t met the two women who run the Neo cafe.
To understand what an achievement Neo is, you have to see what it’s up against. There’s the area, for a start: Birkenhead, now practically a byword for social deprivation. In parts of this town the life expectancy for baby boys is lower than in North Korea.
Since the Brexit vote there’s been a boom in hand-waving commentary on “left-behind” Britain. The columnists and studio guests should come here for a day, and see what their talking points look like as lived experience. Industrial decline? The once great shipbuilder Cammell Laird still clings on, but many of the other big employers have been wiped out. Insecure work? The usual features of an exploitative jobs market are all present, from zero-hours contracts and temp agencies to, most of all, low wages. And of course austerity, from benefit sanctions to multimillion pound cuts at Wirral council.
Impose such conditions on a family and you create misery. Push them across an entire community and you get breakdown. Widespread economic insecurity produces social instability. Relationships fail. Colin, a twentysomething on temp work, describes how his partner had to move out because “I couldn’t make my pay packet feed two”. Stop-start work makes planning budgets hard enough – it makes planning families impossible.
Neighbours move in then move out, so you never know who’s living next door – and you’d all rather leave. One grandmother, Wendy, remembers how she cried on being offered a council house in Rock Ferry, the patch of town that’s home to Neo. Then Anne and Trish chip in with other problems: druggies and no-go areas, so that a kid from this estate can’t go to that one. Here, the horizons have shrunk so far that the neighbourhood can seem like a trap.
Community feeling? It withers in this environment. Wendy remembers a welcome message when she moved in: “My neighbour knocked 11 o’clock at night, drunk. He said, ‘If you need a drill, I know a man who can get you one.’”
Now enter Ema Wilkes and Jen Doherty. Mothers in their early 30s, they moved into the local community centre this Easter – and here’s where things get really interesting.
When I turned up last week, the two had just finished breakfast club and were prepping lunch. As part of the Feeding Birkenhead project, chaired by local MP Frank Field, they’ve served 1,440 meals to local children and their parents these holidays – and handed out 36 “crisis food bags” stuffed with cereals, tins and sauces.
Neo also runs a social supermarket, offering food – that the likes of Marks & Spencer and Tesco would otherwise plaster with yellow stickers or chuck away – to residents on a “pay what you feel” basis. One father, Jamie, detailed how he had picked up around £40 of groceries for £8. Later on, he told me how he’d recently been diagnosed with a vitamin B12 deficiency, a complaint that can be traced to the sustained lack of decent food. It had left him tired, forgetful and in pain. I wondered how much worse off he’d have been without Neo’s cut-price shopping.
All vital work – but it’s the next bit I really want you to hear. Because Wilkes and Doherty are doing something harder, rarer and perhaps more valuable than dispensing charity: they’ve begun restoring a sense of pride to a community left for dead by the rest of the country.
Take the centre the pair work out of. Once used by the council, it had long fallen into disrepair. Weeds thrust knee-high out of the paving and the paint on the railings was peeling. On opening day the gates were flung open, a bouncy castle was put up in the garden and some food was served up. The women, who are from neighbouring Wallasey, didn’t know what to expect. Then by the end of the first morning, the garden began to overflow with stuff: footballs, a racket ball set, climbing kit.
Neighbours who wouldn’t even say hello to each other were bringing over their kids’ playthings. When removal men brought over the giant M&S chiller cabinets for the social supermarket but left them outside, muttering about the wrong angles, it was the locals who stood guard against any nicking – and then shifted them inside.
When I visited, the grass was cut to less than an inch high, and the railings were freshly painted: all done by locals for free. The entire place is run on a philosophy of someone-will-know-someone. When I looked around, there were tyres cut in half to serve as planters, kit donated by schools, cafe tables and chairs given by a local Tesco. In an economy in which so many institutions have withered away or been useless, Wilkes and Doherty have led residents into building their own. Now volunteers lay on ukulele and art lessons upstairs for the kids, and the adults teach each other how to cook good-value filling meals. Local businesses have been corralled into donating money or goods or time. Next month, a solicitor will begin a free advice surgery. I hope Colin and his mates get him to check whether their job contracts are being properly followed.
In a previous role Wilkes was an employment coach, cajoling people off the dole and into whatever jobs were around. Now she and Doherty are encouraging locals to see what they can do for themselves. All this is being done without money or a business plan, and on subsistence wages. Asked what their guiding principles are, Wilkes offers: “It’s about working with community, identifying their needs, not just throwing leaflets through the door and walking off.”
The community house is already being used as a hub to lobby for local housing for a resident who faces resettlement miles away. Maybe in time the locals will organise against exploitative bosses and for better services.
Next month Corbyn’s party will hold its annual conference down the road in Liverpool. He should pop by and take a look. Both Wilkes and Doherty are fans of Corbyn, and I think they have a lot to teach him about what a social movement can be used for. Not just to pass about memes and mobilise votes – but to listen to the communities they are trying to organise to see what would help them: defending private tenants against bad landlords, and casual workers from dodgy bosses – and negotiating good deals with the energy companies. Now that would be a political movement worth getting excited about. It might even be worth voting for.