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Ian Byrne: The MP uniting football and political rivals on a right to food

This week Marcus Rashford gave his backing to the Right to Food campaign. The grassroots activist turned MP behind it, Ian Byrne, explains why embracing football fans and human rights is key to ending hunger in the UK
Ian Byrne's grassroots activism against food poverty has seen him take his fight to Westminster with the RIght to Food campaign. Image credit: UK Parliament

This week’s backlash against the European Super League has shown what fan power can achieve. Supporters cast aside differences on the pitch for a greater cause off it and faced down the biggest powers in the game.

It was no surprise to Ian Byrne, the MP for Liverpool’s West Derby constituency. The Labour politician has been advocating the same approach since 2015 but rather than tackling corporate greed and football bigwigs, he has used the sport as an anchor for a bigger issue: stopping people from going hungry.

Elected in 2019, Byrne has chiefly devoted his efforts to tackling food poverty and giving everyone a human right to food. He kicked off both Fans Supporting Foodbanks (FSF), the poverty-battling group that started on Merseyside, and the Right to Food campaign to give people living in poverty the legal framework to demand they don’t go hungry.

Both have come to the fore over the course of the pandemic as high street jobs evaporate and parents struggle to put food on the table.

“Covid–19 has shone a light on poverty,” Byrne tells The Big Issue. “It’s shone a light on the inequality in our society. It’s put lots of people who previously never thought in a million years they would be accessing the benefits system and foodbanks into it.”

Unlike most other MPs, this is a situation Byrne has direct experience of. He is as much a victim of a decade of austerity as the community he represents.

Negotiating benefits and “the world of the Department of Work and Pensions”, as he puts it, is a life that Byrne has tasted.

Growing up on Cantril Farm council estate in West Derby in the Seventies and Eighties, Byrne had not had to confront this reality before. A safety net that was a “far more accommodating place” was in place. He could access free school meals, his family always had a meal on the table, there was no need for food banks.

As the coalition government took hold in Westminster in 2010 and brought with it welfare–slashing austerity measures, Byrne was working as a printer and in a bubble, he freely admits. Reality soon popped that bubble.

“I was made redundant myself, we were locked out of the factory for six months,” the 48–year–old says.

“Then I entered the world of DWP. I ended up becoming a taxi driver and working for Unite the union and it took me away from the bubble I was in. Getting taken into that world you were seeing it, seeing what people were going through. 

“Seeing people you actually knew queuing for food banks, that’s when it really hit home.”

It was a food bank queue that became the driving force behind the formation of FSF, which brings together Everton fans, Liverpool fans and local communities in Merseyside to tackle poverty.

As a football fan you are still a viable part of your communityIan Byrne

Byrne and co-founder Dave Kelly saw a queue that they thought was for the local bingo. The reality was far more harrowing.

“I was shocked. We thought they were queuing for an afternoon of fun,” says Byrne.

“When we were told it was a queue for a food bank and we were taken into the pantry to see what was being given out, it broke my heart. It’s something that will live with me until the day I die when I saw pasta being divided up in sweet bags. I thought we have to do something to help the people in our community. I didn’t sleep a wink that night.”

From there an ambitious nationwide movement has grown to tackle hunger and reframe football fans from public menace to community do–gooders.

Fans Supporting Foodbanks
Fans Supporting Foodbanks Ian Byrne Ken Narita
Ian Byrne (right) has even seen his work with Fans Supporting Foodbanks have an international impact. Ken Narita (centre) a food poverty activist from Japan, made a fact-finding trip in 2020 to learn how to end hunger in his own country. Image credit: Ken Narita

Fan-based food banks have sprung up across the country and there are now supporters groups representing the majority of Premier League clubs.

“I’m extremely proud of what Fans Supporting Foodbanks has done with regards to reinventing people’s perception of a football fan,” says Byrne, a staunch Liverpool FC fan and member of the Reds’ supporters’ group Spirit of Shankly. “What was often thought of as a nuisance, what was once thought of as someone who came into your community to create havoc – as a football fan you are still a viable part of your community.”

I don’t tire of saying that the first donation to a Manchester United food bank came from Liverpool football supportersIan Byrne

Football fans who may have been expected to tell you how many millions their team paid for a star signing now quote official figures about child poverty or food shortages. There were 4.3 million children growing up in relative poverty at the start of 2020. Some 3.2 million were classed as “food insecure”. That’s part of Ian Byrne and his Merseyside comrades’ legacy.

The network has campaigned elsewhere. Newcastle United’s NUFC Fans Foodbank was pivotal in ending pay–per–view Premier League matches during the pandemic and the network joined fans across the country in standing against the breakaway Super League this week.

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But it is on a right to food where the long–term battle goes on.

“I don’t tire of saying that the first donation to a Manchester United food bank came from Liverpool football supporters,” Byrne continues.

“Football at times is very parochial but I think we found they were bringing what they saw on the football pitch into meeting rooms. 

“We said to them, me and Dave, if you don’t pull together as a collective then we won’t achieve anything. That sort of narrative has been really successful on a number of fronts.”

Byrne is not the only uniting voice from football on food poverty.

Marcus Rashford’s efforts to tackle hunger have shifted attention on to the issue in a way that has united people from all corners of society.

The Manchester United footballer gave the Right to Food campaign his “100 per cent” support earlier this week.

Marcus is an outstanding individual – and it pains me to say as well – he’s a fantastic footballerIan Byrne

The number of eyeballs Rashford has brought to the issue is something Byrne desperately needs. An FSF petition on bringing a right to food into law is currently around halfway to the 100,000 signatures required to launch a parliamentary debate.

Byrne, speaking from his home with framed Everton and Liverpool shirts behind him, tells The Big Issue he will work with anyone from any corner of the political landscape or wider society to make the change – whether it be Rashford or from traditional rival parties.

Ian Byrne
Ian Byrne
Ian Byrne spoke to The Big Issue with a backdrop that shows the unity of tackling food poverty in Merseyside through both Everton and Liverpool supporters

“Marcus is an outstanding individual – and it pains me to say as well – he’s a fantastic footballer. But I think what he has done has brought his life experiences,” says Byrne.

“The power of Marcus’ campaign is that he had millions of people behind him regardless of whatever political persuasion – they may not be politically motivated on any level – they just saw the unfairness around the school dinner debacle. That focused our minds as well and I think it has been really beneficial to us in terms of what Marcus did.

“I think that is something that I’m really keen to emphasise to everyone – this is a campaign which transcends normal red and blue politics. It can’t be seen as a Labour campaign or a Conservative campaign, this is about where we are as a country”

Both Rashford and Byrne are eyeing a similar summer milestone. Both have made submissions to Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy, a once-in-a-generation independent review of how food is produced, sold and eaten “from field to fork” in England. 

Byrne hopes the restaurateur will recommend a legal right to food is adopted and two meals are be provided for all children in school. He also wants government ministers to lay out their reasoning behind universal credit pay rates in parliament – something he considers as a key driver of food poverty alongside the casualisation of labour.

But, for now, the Right to Food campaign will continue with its current tactics of asking council leaders to back a motion on the right – as has happened in Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle as well as Preston and York. And tapping into the zeitgeist around fan power to end hunger across the nation. 

“The campaign needs to be huge, it needs to have millions of people calling for a right to food,” says Byrne. “We’ve got millions of people in food poverty and the only way that changes is to change the law.

“Hopefully that can be one benefit of the pandemic – that people have the realisation of why we need a fair welfare system and why we need to eradicate food poverty and look at systemic change. It has made a powerful mix.”