Rashford’s 'simple, authentic' school meals campaign is a lesson for anyone lobbying government

‘An open goal’, ‘He shoots, he scores!’ – the headlines write themselves for footballer Rashford’s campaign for the Government to extend free school meals to cover holidays during the pandemic.

It's hard to make a logical counter-argument against Marcus Rashford's central 'ask' of the Government, writes John McTernan
It's hard to make a logical counter-argument against Marcus Rashford's central 'ask' of the Government, writes John McTernan

Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford won a victory on this issue over the summer, and was rewarded with not just public support, but also an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson probably thought the issue was settled with his summer concession – after all, in politics campaigns rarely revive after achieving their objectives.

Unfortunately for the Government, Rashford comes from the modern world of celebrity entertainment – and, like a franchise blockbuster, he is back again, bigger and better.

Nearly a million people have signed his petition to the Government. He has also mobilised his 3.7m followers on Twitter, and their networks, to step forward where the Government hasn’t acted.

Across the country local councils, businesses, charities and individuals have acted and a patchwork of support has sprung up for the current school half-term.

What is the secret of Rashford's success? Like all great campaigns: simplicity, and authenticity, wrapped up in a call for action we can all answer.

First, his 'ask' of government follows one of the iron laws of campaigning: it is simple and easily understood.

As his petition says: ‘End child food poverty – no child should be going hungry.’

It is, as the Government's ministers and backbench MPs have found, hard to argue against.

What is the case for keeping children hungry? So far, the Government hasn’t found a convincing one.

Second, there is Rashford’s authenticity. Early on in the pandemic health secretary Matt Hancock tried to make an issue of footballers' pay, saying that they should "take a pay cut, and play their part".

Well, Hancock got what he asked for, but probably not what he wanted. Rashford may be a millionaire now, but he got there from a humble background on the basis of talent and graft.

And, as he puts it, all he wants for this generation is the same support that he received – and helped him to get where he is.

Third, there is the mobilisation. Rashford uses his position as a celebrity in a classic ‘call and response'. After the failure of parliamentary attempts to extend free school meals during the current half-term, to paraphrase the words of [US union activist from the early 1900s] Joe Hill, Marcus Rashford didn’t mourn: he organised.

A call for the country to fill the gap left by the Government was met by offers and initiatives that were tweeted to him and he then retweeted. Together with TV, radio, and press coverage, this was earned media on a scale rarely seen.

In the end, though, the most important thing about this campaign is that it has made us feel good about ourselves. Collectively, the country came through and we showed each other that care can become action. Typically, the football star said it simplest and best when, speaking to the BBC, he gave the praise back to the community:

“Growing up we didn't have a lot, but we always had the safety net of the community. That community was my family. When we stumbled, we were caught with open arms… I am truly overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. You want to talk about 'celebrities' and 'superstars', look no further than my Twitter feed and that's exactly what you'll find.”

John McTernan is a senior adviser at BCW Global and a former adviser to Tony Blair

Thumbnail image credit: Fareshare/Mark Waugh 

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