What we need is rationing

Trevor Fisher fears a genuine shortage of essentials is coming

Responses to panic buying are inadequate. Labour cannot go on talking about an advertising campaign – the government must bring back rationing. Appeals to stop panic buying make no impact on the hoarders. Those who do it are driven by powerful emotions: fear and greed. The supermarkets are trying to limit buying to two or three items per customer, but it is not working. Those who can drive round to different supermarkets.

Rationing worked in two world wars and made sure everyone had enough. Once you have had your share that is the end of the matter. With the charity Nappy Project, which supports struggling families in Stoke-on-Trent, running out of baby food, milk and other essentials, there is no time to lose. That charity is now getting appeals from as far away as Plymouth and Wrexham. This is a national problem and needs a UK-wide solution.

As Dave Prentis, Unison general secretary, has said, essential workers and the vulnerable are at risk of being without food because of selfish and irresponsible stockpiling and it is only a matter of time before hunger and a black market for overpriced but scarce goods develops. Supermarkets are now planning to recruit more staff to cope with demand. The danger is growing that a black market with prices rising as marketeers make money from shortages could lead to the poorest and most vulnerable people running short. Government action to bring back rationing is now vital.

In the First World War, lack of rationing led to the formation of the Co-Op Party as the co-operative retail movement experienced blatant bias by the capitalist forces within Westminster who would not accept that free market solutions were not working. Private traders profiteered from shortages, while co-operators were not allowed on supply committees despite co-operatives running a third of the retail trade. The war saw unprecedented growth amongst familiar business names, subsidised by the government who needed supplies to keep the war effort going.

At the Swansea conference in May 1917 a resolution was passed for direct representation in parliament. From over a thousand co-op societies, 1,979 voted for with only 201 delegates voting against. Lloyd George still refused to meet the co-operative representatives and a special congress was called. At Westminster Hall in October 1917, the Co-Operative Movement set up the Co-Operative Party. Two months later rationing was started.

A quantum leap is now needed in all aspects of supply. The National Farmers Union has warned that unless migrant labour is allowed from Europe, as it was under membership of the EU, crops will rot in the fields. A Brexit dogmatic government is more likely to conscript the unemployed to pick the crops, with imprisonment for those who refuse. If the crisis is not over by the summer, politics will take some very radical changes. One of those, which has to be planned now, is rationing – a democratic solution. And Labour has to be leading the way and doing so now.

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