Have “people’s heroes” become Her Majesty’s unofficial opposition – and is that ok?

Money expert Martin Lewis has earned unprecedented prominence in the cost-of-living crisis, calling for Britain’s “zombie government” to take urgent action to prevent £3,500 energy bills. He’s challenged Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to meet Boris Johnson immediately and hatch a plan to stop a winter Armageddon, with characteristic straight-talking; “Sit in a room, decide what you are going to do, take … collective action and give the panicking people across the country [some] respite.”

Lewis is no overnight success, founding the Money Saving Expert website in 2003 for £80, starting his own, prime-time ITV series in 2012 and clocking up a net worth of £123million today.

But though he’s in the Rishi Sunak league, consumers don’t seem to care about the wealth of ‘their saviour’ because his work to help folk avoid the worst financial pitfalls is apparently never-ending and always timely.

In March he probably launched a million photographs by urging energy users to record their meter readings before the first price cap rise. That’s a clout no political party or campaigning charity seems to possess.

Meanwhile, the writer and activist Jack Monroe’s dogged campaign to highlight higher-then-average rises in basic supermarket food prices forced the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to “dramatically widen the number of products it tracks”.

This followed a long fight by the poverty campaigner to prove that basics like pasta, rice and jam had all increased in cost by much more than the ONS estimates. Monroe launched her own price index with economists, campaigners, and former ONS staff to document the disappearance of budget lines from supermarket shelves and the ‘insidiously creeping prices’ of the basic lines still there. As a result, ASDA announced it would stock low-cost ranges in all 581 food stores – immediately.

And, of course, there’s Man U’s Marcus Rashford who shamed the British Government into providing free summer school meals during the 2020 pandemic, drawing on his own experience of going hungry as a child. After that success, Rashford convened a Child Food Poverty Taskforce and tweeted pictures of miserable government food parcels, forcing Boris Johnson to U-turn again and promise free school meals to families on benefits during the Christmas, Easter and Summer holidays of 2021 as well. His twitter campaign is now on the curriculum for pupils taking GCSE media studies.

What have these people’s heroes got in common? Jack Monroe still lives on the breadline, but Marcus Rashford and Martyn Lewis are multi-millionaires. You could argue wealth makes them fearless, but whilst other millionaires can be generous to charities, few launch overtly political campaigns against government policy. They are also straight talking, stubborn characters who simply refuse to be co-opted.

Jack Monroe was embraced by Good Morning Britain, but doesn’t observe broadcast niceties, recently pointing out a fellow guest’s financial connections with big energy companies. She’s pushed back against the bonny fechter image: "I resent being framed as combative or demanding simply for politely asking that all people are represented equally in national statistics."

Martin Lewis was made an OBE in 2014 and received an MBE this summer, whilst Marcus Rashford got his gong last year. But that hasn’t stopped either man from biting the hand that ennobles. So, have these people’s heroes been lucky, hard-working, clever – or all the above?

Certainly, the media prefers high-profile, one-off campaigns by celebrities with a conscience to the “worthy” party-political, union and charity efforts that slog away for years. Labour actually got pelters for the Johnson school meals U-turn after tweeting, “We did it! Thank you to everyone who campaigned for #Holidays Without Hunger.” Labour supporters were quick to comment that it was Rashford’s campaign, not Labour’s, that galvanized public opinion which in turn prompted the government’s change of heart. One political commentator said; ‘this unelected footballer [has] exerted more influence on policy, than many MPs might do in the totality of a 20-year backbench career at Westminster.’

But is that fair? Leaving political parties aside for one minute, what about the doughty campaigners who’ve been thumping away for years without the prime Good Morning Britain TV slots that give such high profile? Undoubtedly, Citizens Advice, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, UNICEF and Radio 4’s Money Box presenter Paul Lewis have all pushed on the same fronts as Ms Monroe and Messrs Rashford and Lewis. But there’s the rub. News has a preference for the unusual, the cogent, passionate individual and the very particular issue.

Perhaps their visibility problem is ironically related to the length of time they’ve been campaigning. Meanwhile, bias-wary BBC presenters generally won’t ‘campaign’ against the government – the anti-hunting stance of Springwatch’s Chris Packham being a bold exception.

But how long do “heroic wins” last? The ONS is now using millions of price points instead of thousands and ASDA still stocks its full basics ranges. But benefits remain effectively frozen and some English councils have slashed the value of summer school meal vouchers to £1.66 per day – just half the amount handed out during Rashford’s campaign.

Meanwhile in Scotland, without fanfare, but doubtless with quiet lobbying by the anti-poverty campaigners who pushed through the Scottish Child Payment – free summer school meals are available to families on benefits. As usual. Without personality campaigns. Same in Wales.

This might suggest Tory governments are less responsive to ‘ordinary’ lobbying efforts than devolved governments – until adverse publicity focuses minds. But there’s another common factor. The people’s heroes have carefully chosen (massive) single-issue campaigns that focus on human rights, staying warm, finding affordable food – not political change. Indeed, when fans pleaded with Martin Lewis to become the next Chancellor of the Exchequer after Rishi Sunak’s recent resignation, he memorably told his 1.5m Twitter followers “I'd rather wire my nipples to electrodes.”

It’s relatively easy for the media to back humanitarian arguments by insistent individuals. But Britain desperately needs regime change. And with Keir Starmer inching ever closer to the Tories, who will deliver that?

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