Originally published at www.redpepper.org.uk

Marcus Rashford deserves all the plaudits he gets this year. Even if the BBC rules that successfully taking on the PM is less evidence of ‘sports personality’ than a predictable Formula 1 victory. A 23-year-old professional footballer has relentlessly demanded more than temporary government measures to address child poverty. So far, he looks to be winning.

His personal story is not only an indictment of this government, or even its austerity-touting coalition predecessor, however. Rashford joined the Manchester United Academy a year earlier than is usual specifically so that he could eat well. That was 2009, under Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Born in 1997, we must not forget that Rashford is a child of New Labour.

Some leftists have been squeamish about a millionaire being hailed for ‘charity work’, overlooking the clear politics of the discourse he kick-started. He is wise to say his work is ‘not political’ – a young, working-class black man explicitly slamming the government would attract censure, not support. Nonetheless, he has assertively rejected Conservative narratives about individual ‘responsibility’. His mother’s hard work has matched his own, Rashford stresses, explaining clearly that the struggle of millions of people to stay above the poverty line is a social, not parental, failing. Repudiating neoliberalism, however imperfectly, is not apolitical.

Qualms that his calls for everyone to ‘pitch in’ echoed Conservative ‘big society’ rhetoric have also been overstated, but do point to a longstanding tension between state and community provisions of aid. Before the government’s quiet U-turn on free school meals, and before Rashford elevated their platform through four million social media followers, people nationwide were already packing lunches and dinners, and filling food bank shelves. They were doing so long before the pandemic hit.Repudiating neoliberalism, however imperfectly, is not apolitical.

Mutual aid is in the spotlight now, but it has been central to community organising and survival for centuries. As Red Pepper co-editor Amardeep Singh Dhillon wrote earlier this year, the challenge is to create radically equitable distributions of resources at the local level while also pressuring the state to follow suit. Against the odds, a young sportsman has demonstrated, potentially, the utility of that approach.

The rush of big brands to ‘join forces’ with Rashford is good reason for pause, however. The pandemic has prompted corporations to demonstrate their ‘caring’ credentials. Concern for public – read: consumer – wellbeing has displaced climate action and assertions that black lives matter as the latest must-have in corporate social responsibility advertising. Your bank is here for you, if you need to talk… about managing your borrowing. IKEA wants you to stay home… in ones it designed. Tesco celebrates families cooking over conference call… ingredients available in store. McDonald’s merrily encourages social distancing… but denies its staff sick leave and PPE.

Cynicism is justified. After all, marketing agency execs have warned clients to strategically embrace ‘acts not ads’, lest customers sense insincerity. If advertisers’ responses to coronavirus are serving society, it’s only because their messaging is clearer than government guidelines. Meanwhile, a rogue’s gallery of companies directly responsible for in-work poverty – Deliveroo chief among them – have flocked to ‘carewash’ their rap-sheets by supporting Rashford’s campaign. They know newsworthy donations turn more heads than billboards. We just need to remember: Marcus is the hero – not his corporate sponsors.

Citation: S. McGuirk (2020) “Political goals” Red Pepper Issue 232 (Winter 2020), p.43 [Online 20 December 2021: https://www.redpepper.org.uk/marcus-rashford-political-goals/%5D

Red Pepper Issue 231 examines the politics of ‘truth’ and looks back on 10 years since the Arab Spring. The culture section focuses on branding and sponsorship in cultural contexts. This column introduced the section.