The Manchester United and England star – who turned 23 in October – has demonstrated a remarkable will with his heartfelt free school meals campaign.

Uninfluenced by spin or “political affiliation”, Rashford has centred on a cross-party initiative that has ‘united’ people on opposite sides of the Chamber: everyone from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to Tory backbenchers like Robert Halforn, chair of the education select committee, and Caroline Ansell who dramatically resigned from the Cabinet over the matter.

Over the last five months, Rashford has been deploying the same techniques the canniest of interest groups use to promote their causes, and influence policymaking: he wrote a poignant editorial in the Times, appeared on television with interviews on the BBC, raised over £20 million for the charity FareShare, created a parliamentary petition with the slogan “no child should go hungry” (as of writing it has over 1 million signatures, one of only 5 petitions ever to reach such a feat) and he has had regular phone calls with Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

Like his performances on the field, Rashford has experienced several obstacles since starting back in June. Rashford has publicly locked horns with Conservative MPs like Ben Bradley and Steve Baker, with the later criticising his demands for being a “sticking plaster not a solution”. More recently, Rashford was left in “despair” after the House of Commons voted against extending the voucher scheme throughout half-term.

But like any great sportsman, Rashford refuses to cede to his rivals and has continued to deliver consistent messaging that not only spans lobbying, PR and media relations but feels more authentic than what most advocacy groups produce. There is no following he has engineered and no credibility he has had to buy. It is just one man taking direct action at the top of his game in the fight against child poverty – a problem that affects many parts of Britain but is a significant problem in the north of England, where Marcus is from and where the Conservative’s made significant gains in the 2019 election.

Now, citizens are off the sidelines and have got in on the action. Over 1,000 councils and organisations – including fast-food chain McDonald’s and the supermarket chain, the Co-op – have defied the government and taken matters into their own hands, providing millions of dinners to over 1 million pupils during the holidays.

“Blown away” by what he has witnessed, Rashford has been sharing the gracious acts of civil society to his 3.5 million Twitter followers – in comparison, Boris boasts around 3 million – regularly, in one lengthily tweet saying: “Selflessness, kindness, togetherness this is the England I know.”

Despite No 10s best efforts to see off Rashford’s efforts, arguing that social security top-ups will assist the neediest during the pandemic, they have U-turned twice on this issue — first in June to keep the scheme running during the summer break (which Rashford practically achieved overnight), and now with a winter grant scheme that will provide support with food and bills, totalling £400 million.

This is a truly remarkable feat – in Rashford’s words – who does not “have the education of a politician” and manages to achieve all this whilst competing full-time as a professional footballer. Indeed, as Marie Le Conte wrote in Mace last week: “Who could have predicted a young footballer would prove to be such a thorn in the Prime Minister’s side?”

He has even won plaudits from leaders in lobbying and PR. Vishal Rana, account director of Mischief, said: “He hasn’t done this to better his image… he’s done this because he’s lived it and knows full well the consequences of the issue at hand.”

And Cicero/AMO executive chair Iain Anderson said it was “one of the fastest lobbying campaigns I have seen”, branding Rashford as one of UK’s most effective lobbyists because of the impact he has had on public policy. And it is no surprise to see why he is receiving this praise: it is a story of a multi-millionaire Premier League juggernaut – who knows what it’s like to go hungry as a child – using his platform to bring change through purpose, personality and passion.

Given the challenges of lobbying in recent times – not least questions of conflicts of interest, secrecy, privileged access, and undue influence that increasingly lead to calls for greater transparency – Rashford has been a breath of fresh air. Without any prior affiliation to any MP, backing of shareholders, or revolving access to Whitehall, Rashford has amplified an issue of social justice that feels sincere and relevant in the Covid climate and has managed to achieve in half a year what some lobbyists could only dream of.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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