“Dead people can’t riot. Dead people can’t vote. First we feed the people, then we plan the revolution.” A clarion call if you’ve ever heard one, though possibly not what a jam-packed room of voluntary sector bodies expected on a Wednesday afternoon. But for anyone who arrived with any prior knowledge of Jack Monroe, they may have had a clue what they were in for.
The campaigner and food writer is now a well-kent face among Britain’s third sector. Their unique brand of sweary, online political takedowns and practical advice for those struggling at the hands of government-imposed austerity has taken the media, supermarkets, and politicians by storm. A self-described human juggernaut, Jack came steaming into the Gathering with answers, wit and anger at a system which failed them and millions of others across the UK.
Standing on the stage that had earlier the same day hosted the first minister, the language used when talking about the changes needed at the highest levels of government was anything but the “ministerial” tone used by Nicola Sturgeon. But few who were in the room would say that Monroe offered any fewer solutions to solving the growing crisis which is engulfing the nation.
Despite the talk of policy, seven published books and countless Twitter spats with those possessing much greater power, Jack still struggles to pin down how to identify themselves. They said: “Whenever I get into a taxi and the taxi driver asks what I do for a living, there’s no easy answer. I write budget cookery books and shout at the government.
“When I first started out my first publisher said I may want to drop the politics as Waitrose didn’t want to stock the books. Yes I would sell more books if I kept my trap shut, but it would be fucking boring.”
“Fucking boring”, Monroe was not. The (extended) hour that the campaigner spent on stage saw them hit out at everything from the stubbornness of supermarkets to the ignorance of decision-makers. All of this, Jack said, is driven their own experiences - something which made them so popular over the past ten years.
“I was a single mum with a baby looking for a job in my town centre in the economic recession,” they said. “I found myself applying for jobs, applying for jobs, and not getting anything. I was frustrated, depressed and furious that the life that I thought I was going to have didn’t turn out that way.
“So I started a little online blog on politics in Southend, which gradually encompassed everything about my day to day life. Food sneaked in there, it was not planned, there was never an idea to write about being a suicidal, single mum alongside soup.
“Then Penguin (Books) contacted me, and after 300 job rejections, I was worried I couldn’t do it. I said no. They wanted 100 essays about my shitty foodbank dinners. But I went back
“There was an awkward situation where my editor asked why I was sending the recipes one at a time, and it was because I didn’t have a computer, so I was sending them on my phone.
“You don’t forget. I’m better off now than I was then, but I’m a freelance writer who doesn’t know their own value.There is always a bit of a disconnect between the policy makers and the people they’re making policy for.
“When people don’t engage with those they’re trying to help they miss the mark every single time. It could be the most well meant interventions, but we don’t need interventions. It’s vital to me that no matter how my circumstances change that I remain connected to the community I’m trying to help.
“Though I carry a lot of trauma from that period, and I do - I’m on my fourth therapist - it’s important to stay in touch with the reasons we do stuff in the first place. The minute you start talking over people, you stop putting their needs at the centre of what you’re doing.”
This is, Monroe made abundantly clear, exactly what is being done by the Tory government at Westminster, who they accused of deliberately decimating the structure of a fundamentally decent society. This rage at those who continue to cling to power is what drives Monroe.
“The sheer scale of wrong that has been done to so many people, BAME communities, mothers, disabled people, Grenfell, and to constantly have to dive into a nation of trauma and take all of that on and do something about it is mental.
“But I can’t not do it. I can’t put it down. I tried to be a train driver about six months ago. I can’t not do it. I do try, every so often. But within about 20 minutes I’m stomping back.
“It makes me absolutely rage and that’s why I’m really still here. I’m driven by that, that’s why I’m here. We don’t have a cost of living crisis, we have a cost of conservatism crisis. There’s nothing there to catch people - it’s a deliberately-designed, disingenuous, heap of shit.
“If you take a step back and look you see they’ve stripped away the structure of society and left volunteers in its place. You’re left with an army of heroes who are helping people, supporting people on the brink of death, pulling them back from the cliff edge. But they shouldn’t be on the cliff edge.
“I will continue to do what I do until it’s no longer needed, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Without a shadow of a doubt there are millions of people who are still alive today thanks to an army of volunteers. The last time we needed that number of volunteers was the world war, now we’re in this invisible war of ideology.”
The heroics performed by volunteers and charities the length and breadth of the country were, and will no doubt continue to be, key in the fight against poverty and inequality. But more drastic measures, focussed on removing those currently in power, will be needed before the good will of the general public is no longer needed to help people survive.
“The government needs to change - just shove them all out,” Monroe states, in a very matter-of-fact manner. “I’ve raged against them, argued with them on Twitter, bollocked them on national television. Everything I can possibly think of, and now that shower of shit needs to go now.
“And it’s going to get worse. They’re so entrenched they’re drunk on power. You’ve got a bunch of people who are so far removed from the everyday realities of the lives that they ruin, the only solution now is, I say, burn it all down and start again - metaphorically.”
The discussion with Monroe flew by, with those in the audience constantly caught between gasps, laughter and rounds of applause. This overwhelming support for the sentiment expressed in the campaigners’ words backs up their final - hopeful - point of the day.
“I can only say what I’ve done, and I wouldn’t recommend it, as I’m a stressed exhausted mess. But don’t stop, it can feel like you’re up against a tidal wave of shit, and nothing makes a difference.
“I described myself as a miracle of science as a human juggernaut and an immovable force. Be stubborn, hold your ground. Largely we all have a common goal, we want people to be able to live decently, joyously.
“So do not think that you’re too small to make a difference. It’s taken me a few crashing depression cycles to learn I won’t single-handedly change the world. But you can do something. If we all do something, we will change somebody’s world.”