Powering a good society | Rethinking Poverty

Powering a good society

Posted on 03 Jan 2019   Categories: Blog, From Rethinking Poverty, Good Society, New economic models, Our vision Related Tags:  

by Barry Knight

Last year was a bad year for anti-poverty campaigners. Poverty rose significantly and yet the government summarily dismissed reports from the UN and JRF.

If we are to produce social advance, new methods are needed. In ‘Powering a good society’, Barry Knight suggests that civil society can #ShiftThePower to produce a society where everyone has dignity and governments respond to people’s needs. The article, originally published in a special edition of the academic journal Local Economy, draws on an organising tradition deriving from the work of John Ruskin that threads through to Mahatma Gandhi, to Martin Luther King, and to Citizens UK. The key words are ‘agency’, ‘community development’, ‘good society’, local economy’, ‘poverty’, and ‘power’.

Last month, we published co-editor Katy Goldstraw’s article on the special edition.


A recent study shows that current methods to reduce poverty are failing (Knight, 2017).  A change of direction is needed, since traditional methods of job creation and social security are unlikely to work in the future.  The answer lies not in a set of transactional policies that shift resources but in the development of transformational relationships that shift power. In short, we need a new model of society.

This article will describe the society people want.  The research is based on social surveys, focus groups and participative research that includes the views, among others, of minorities, migrants, children, community groups and organised groups of poor people in the UK. Findings suggest five principles for a good society: a decent standard of living, a sense of security, freedom to be creative, respectful relationships and a sustainable future for the next generation.

The question arises about how to obtain such a society.  The paper will examine the central role of ‘agency’ within society, particularly the part that can be played by people and organisations in communities organising from the bottom up to reshape their local economies and to build inclusive communities.  Such an approach builds the ‘demand side of governance’ (Knight, Chigudu and Tandon, 2002) that will force governments to build the society that people want.

The article will review current efforts to develop new models following the work of Roberto Unger (2007), who stresses the importance of small-scale innovations to foreshadow the possibilities of larger-scale transformations in society. Using a model of relational power developed by early feminist writer Mary Parker Follett (1995), the #ShiftThePower campaign is building an engaged civil society that sees itself as part of an ecosystem rather than a series of separate organisations (Hodgson and Knight, 2016). This approach builds on a line of history, almost entirely disregarded by current thinkers, that traces connections between John Ruskin’s Unto this last, first published as essays in 1860, its translation into Gujarati by Gandhi in 1908, and its influence on the campaign for Indian independence, and subsequently on the civil rights movement in the US.

This article is based on a five-year research programme funded and co-ordinated by the Webb Memorial Trust. It draws on Knight (2017), but also uses emerging results from follow-up research. The study started with the framing question: ‘what would it take to end poverty?’ However, following initial consultation and field work, we realised that we needed to expand this to three questions:

  • What is a good society without poverty?
  • How do we obtain that society?
  • Who does what to implement a good society without poverty?

The research involved many partners, including Compass, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, the Institute for Public Policy and Professional Practice (I4P) at Edge Hill University, the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), the Fabian Society, Bright Blue, Oxfam, the Smith Institute, Shelter and others, as well as a range of academics.  We also worked closely with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty.

The current paper is in three parts.  Part 1 suggests that the models used to deliver a good society free from poverty are no longer working.  Part 2 will look at alternative models and describe empirical results that identify the society that people want.  Part 3 will consider the means of achieving that society.

Part 1: The fading allure of Beveridge

Our research started with a model of society inspired by the work of Beatrice Webb because she believed that society should be organised with poverty reduction in mind (Webb and Webb, 1909). The model involves the state managing the economy and regulating social structure to ensure that work is both plentiful and well paid, while social services protect people without work so that everyone has a minimum standard of life.

Beatrice Webb’s ideas had a marked effect on William Beveridge when he wrote Social Insurance and Allied Services in 1942. Her ideas also had a profound effect on Clement Atlee, who was prime minister in the 1945 government that implemented the report. Both had worked closely with Beatrice Webb on The Minority Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress 1905–09.  Beveridge had been her research assistant and Atlee her campaign manager.

That successive governments followed the Beveridge Plan for the 30 years after the Second World War meant that the UK experienced its greatest social advance in our history. There was a marked reduction in poverty. In a careful re-analysis of data collected by Seebohm Rowntree in York, Hatton and Bailey (2000) showed a dramatic fall in poverty rates, from 31 per cent in 1936 to 12 per cent in 1950.

Four factors were responsible for the gains. First, expansionary macroeconomic policies, combined with a commitment to full employment, guaranteed that work was easy to come by. Second, strong trade unions in a relatively protected economy meant that real wages rose in tandem with productivity, allowing workers to enjoy rising living standards. Third, public spending on health, education and housing created a social wage that particularly helped those on lower incomes. Fourth, fiscal policy taxed the rich to benefit everyone, including the poor. The consequence was a dramatic fall in poverty over several decades.

The success of the Beveridge Plan means that for many people – particularly on the left – it remains the standard by which people judge a good society.  Goldstraw and Diamond (2017) found that the ambition to reinstate Beveridge’s principles was one of three strands of a good society discussed during their extensive consultations with civil society. Armstrong (2017), in his book The New Poverty, uses quotations from Beveridge as epigraphs for each chapter, and the London School of Economics have recently launched a project called Beveridge 2.0.  Reports commissioned by the Webb Memorial Trust often included the phrase ‘going back to Beveridge’ in their recommendations (Coates, 2012, Horton and Gregory, 2009).

However, it is now 40 years since we have had a world governed by Beveridge principles. The post-war consensus fell apart during the 1970s when Keynesian economics buckled under the weight of inflation, unemployment and industrial disorder, culminating in a visit from the International Monetary Fund in 1976.  In Thinking the unthinkable, Richard Cockett (1994) shows how the ideas of free market economics overtook the ideas of Beveridge. The Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute developed the five core principles of neoliberalism (free markets, small state, low tax, individual liberty and big defence), and used them to capture the hearts and minds of the Conservative Party, which ruled the country for 18 years following the 1979 election and in the process transformed British society.

Reviewing this period of history for the Trust, the Smith Institute examined the principles on which the new policy was based, and concluded:

‘According to the Conservative Party, incomes policy had obviously failed, trade unions were too powerful, markets were over-regulated; taxes were too high, nationalised industries were feather bedded and an over generous social welfare system discouraged enterprise and created state dependency.’ (Coates, 2012, pp 45-6)

The new approach envisaged a reduced role for government, sweeping away regulations and freeing up the market to create what it described as an ‘enterprise economy’.  Economic policy no longer supported full employment as efforts went into the control of inflation. Financial markets were deregulated through ‘Big Bang’ in 1986. Tax rates were reduced – a measure justified by the ‘Laffer Curve’, which suggested that a cut in the top rates would increase the total tax take. These changes supported the rich at the expense of the poor on the theory that wealth created at the top of society would ‘trickle down’ to everyone else and lift people out of poverty.

As well as encouraging the idea of ‘enterprise’, the Conservative government attacked what it called ‘dependency’. This entailed ‘welfare reform’ through the reduction of state benefits. The 1986 Social Security Act effectively ended the national insurance principle and replaced it with means testing. Every government since 1986 has used ‘restart’ interviews to encourage people back to work and ‘conditionalities’ to enable sanctions on benefits for non-compliance.  Both Conservative and Labour governments introduced welfare to work programmes as a means of reducing dependency on benefits. John Major’s government introduced ‘Project Work’ in the early 1990s. The Labour government introduced the ‘New Deal’ in 1998, which had as its signature the ‘power to withdraw benefits from those who refused reasonable employment’.

The result of these changes is that recent governments have largely abandoned the Beveridge principles of regulating the economy to provide well paid work and providing adequate social protection for those who need it. The labour market no longer works to keep people out of poverty, since 2,700,000 children classed as poor live in a family where one adult is working (JRF Analysis Unit, 2017).  Social security payments do not keep people out of poverty, and Universal Credit is predicted to put a further million children below the poverty line by the end of this decade (Tucker, 2017).

Statistics such as these intensify the gloom that has descended on anti-poverty campaigners since the 2008 financial crisis that led to the austerity policies pursued by the Coalition government from 2010 onward.  There is a sense that we are now at crisis point. Hardly a week goes by without a report telling us how bad poverty is (Knight, 2017). Topics include the growth in homelessness, the use of foodbanks, cuts to public services, falling wage rates, the record numbers of the working poor, the plight of refugees, and the likely rise in child poverty rates over the next five years. In the background, there is the sense of a deeply divided society where inequality has reached unsustainable proportions.

Various publications in our research programme supported this view. Michael Orton (2015) considered the theme of insecurity in his report, Something’s not right. Having reviewed the evidence on social attitudes, housing, work, finances and health, he concluded that the UK is an insecure society in which ‘fragmentation, discontinuity and inconsequentiality create a sense of flux, rather than solidity, and temporariness dependent on short term utility not permanence’. (p 13) Orton found that insecurity permeates society and is not restricted to people who have trouble making ends meet.

Neil McInroy (2016) reviewed evidence from the field of local regeneration. He notes:

‘In my 25 years of working in the field of local economic development and regeneration, the situation has probably never been as bad. With little appetite for greater use of redistribution and/or re-mobilisation of the national welfare state or targeted social policy, we are left with an inadequate general rising economic tide to solve the scourge of poverty.(p 3)

The crisis has been a long time coming. A succession of reports – notably Brian Robson’s (1994) forensic review of the limitations of area-based regeneration policies – has highlighted the ineffectiveness of government policies in building a social infrastructure that would create a sense of common purpose and ensure the fruits of growth are shared fairly.

Three bestselling books in the past few years have produced powerful criticisms of the current system, particularly in relation to the role of the market and the consequent rise in inequality. Thomas Piketty (2013) demonstrated that the returns on capital have persistently exceeded the returns on labour, leading to long-term increases in inequality. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009) showed how inequality damages society. Finally, Michael Sandel (2012) revealed how markets have permeated every aspect of life, undermining our sense of value. Almost everyone – at most points on the political spectrum – believes that the neoliberal philosophy has run its course. This includes economists at the International Monetary Fund who believe that the philosophy has been oversold (Ostry, Loungani, and Furceri, 2016). These things matter and affect ordinary people’s lives.

There are many areas where the current system is failing ordinary people. Planning is a good example. The Trust commissioned the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) to review the English system of land use planning. It concluded:

‘The planning system was invented to help provide a good home, for everyone, in a healthy, thriving place. But in the last few decades something has gone badly wrong. Instead of having people’s welfare as its priority, nowadays the English planning system puts economic growth above all else. What has this achieved? All over the country working people can’t afford to buy a home. People on benefits are forced to move hundreds of miles away because there are no affordable rented homes where they live. And local councils are unable to refuse permission for developments that they know will harm their communities.’  (TCPA, 2015, p 1)

The TCPA suggested that the UK is a rich society that is poorly organised. To make progress, it is vital for us to bring back a sense of utopia that focuses on ‘… meeting people’s needs for homes, green spaces, and attractive towns, cities and villages’. (p 1)

How do we achieve the changes we need? Government has neither the means nor the credibility to provide a solution. The purely economic approach to prosperity has failed, and people are increasingly looking for forms of wellbeing that are not solely material. Policy makers and experts on the one hand, and communities at the sharp end of a divided and uneasy society on the other, are unable to communicate with each other (McGarvey, 2017). All this indicates the need for a new approach.  In an afterword to The new poverty, Armstrong (2017) suggests we have ‘…reached the end of the post-war era of welfare’. (p 230) He suggests ‘The Five Giants are returning, and the need for a comprehensive approach is urgent, but we can’t go back and use Beveridge’s solutions’. (p 230)

All societies go through periodic key turning points: for example, in 1906, 1945 and 1979. It is time for society to turn again and to write a new chapter.  The question is what is the story for the next stage and how do we get the society that we want, rather than drifting into one we don’t want?

Stewart Lansley has identified four conditions that lead to transformation in society: severe economic shock; the intellectual collapse of the existing model; a loss of faith by the public in the existing system; and a ready-made and credible alternative (Orton, 2016).  The first three have already come about.  We faced an economic shock in 2008 from which we have not recovered; the neoliberal model is collapsing under its own weight; and there is a wide sense of alienation among the public. What is missing is a coherent, ready-made and widely endorsed alternative that would command public support. Developing such an alternative is the task of the next section.

Part 2: A new model for society

It is evident that society needs a new narrative. The scale of the gathering crisis suggests that the future must be very different from the past, as must the means by which we get there. In developing a narrative, we followed a principle developed by Buckminster Fuller:

‘You never change something by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’ (Cited by Quinn, 1999, p 137)

This does not mean that anti-poverty campaigners should cease the day to day struggle to improve conditions for poor people, but that more effort must be found to conduct a fundamental review of how we organise society and change the system. We need to address the social and economic conditions we want to see in our society.  Otherwise our actions will be sticking plaster. This is, of course, the challenge that Beveridge faced in 1942, but the conditions are very different.

This takes us to the topic of a good society, and how to decide what kind of society we want. According to Tony Judt (2010), this is a vital question and suggests that part of the reason we have got ourselves into the mess we have is that big normative questions have fallen off the agenda:

‘We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.’ (pp 1-2)

Our research study began with the topic of poverty, and moved to the larger question of ‘what is a good society?’ Although it is important to find solutions to the problem of poverty, using the word ‘poverty’ as the presenting problem for why we need to think about a good society has serious difficulties.  Our research uncovered four reasons why this is the case. First, public attitudes about poverty have changed markedly since Beveridge’s time. Our population studies suggest that around one-third are keen to do something about poverty; one-third think people in poverty should pull themselves out of it; and one-third think that poverty is an inevitable part of a modern society so that not much can be done about it.  It follows that the idea of combating poverty has little public support. Second, the word ‘poverty’ is so emotionally loaded that it creates an ‘angry and fruitless debate’ (Unwin, 2013, p viii). In our early focus groups, we found that there was so much finger pointing about who was to blame for poverty that it was difficult to have a rational discussion. Third, the word ‘poverty’ has low ‘face validity’, in the sense that even people with the lowest incomes in our society don’t recognise themselves as poor (Shildrick and MacDonald, 2013). Finally, the term ‘poverty’ involves what George Lakoff (2004) has called ‘negative framing’, because it involves getting rid of something we don’t want.  To engage people in discussions, it is more effective to frame issues positively so that they focus on people’s active and deep-seated values and what they want.

Talking about a good society avoids these difficulties since it is positively framed and has few adverse connotations. To advance our understanding of a good society, we need to employ an explicitly normative frame and use what John Paul Lederach (2005) has called ‘the moral imagination’. This entails creative processes that are more akin to art than the logic models used in development projects. As the pursuit of professional excellence in society has emphasised the technology, techniques and skills of process management, he suggests:

‘… our approaches have become too cookie-cutter like, too reliant on what proper technique suggests as a frame of reference, and as a result our processes are too rigid and fragile.’ (p 73)

The use of the moral imagination is in a sociological tradition that derives from C. Wright Mills and his book The sociological imagination. Mills (1959) admonished his social science colleagues for becoming obsessed with narrow, discipline-based technical applications and esoteric language that obscures the point that the key task for sociologists is to connect social history and personal biography and to imagine better futures. Following Mills, Lederach defines the job of moral imagination as being:

‘To imagine responses and initiatives that, while rooted in the challenges of the real world are, by their nature, capable of rising above destructive patterns and giving birth to that which does not yet exist.’ (p 182)

Lederach’s approach builds on a distinction between two types of thinking – ‘convergent’ and ‘divergent’ – deriving from the work of psychologist Liam Hudson (1967). In convergent thinking, the solution to a problem is found by bringing material from a variety of sources to bear on a problem, in such a way as to produce the ‘right’ answer. In divergent thinking, the solution is found by radiating outwards from any given stimulus. There is no right answer but a new configuration of phenomena that did not exist before.

Although we looked at the literature on the theory of a good society, our main approach was an empirical investigation asking the question ‘what kind of society do you want?’ This is a complex undertaking and simple answers can only be provisional. Using many techniques and giving emphasis to the views of people who have experienced poverty, the studies included:

  1. Survey data from the public: four interlinked studies conducted by YouGov sought the views of more than 12,000 individuals supplemented by 16 focus groups.
  2. Participative research: A series of projects designed to give different groups in the population an opportunity to express their views of a good society.  These included community organisations, migrants, children and young people, and black minority ethnic groups. This research often took creative forms. For example, the work with children and young people involved giving children opportunities to take part in developing a conference, performing a play, playing an online game, taking photographs, writing a manifesto on ‘Poverty Ends Now’, giving evidence in parliament and asking parliamentary questions.
  3. Commissioned studies from think tanks and professional researchers: These have included work on child poverty, transport, housing, security, welfare, planning, civil society, and other relevant topics.
  4. Discussions through the All Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty, hosted discussions by think tanks and universities, and an online discussion hub called Rethinking Poverty, which can be found here.

Inevitably, there were many different views expressed on what constitutes a good society and synthesising them was a difficult task.  This was undertaken by researcher Michael Orton, who worked with community groups in the West Midlands over nine sessions to reduce the work to five principles.  These are provisional and are offered for discussion and further work:

  1. We all have a decent basic standard of living
  2. So, we are secure and free to choose how to lead our lives
  3. Developing our potential and flourishing materially and emotionally
  4. Participating, contributing and treating all with care and respect
  5. And building a fair and sustainable future for the next generations

In drafting these principles, people were aware of the ‘tyranny of perfection’.  It is vital to prevent the perfect from becoming the enemy of the good. The strength of the neoliberal principles is that they can be expressed in 10 words (free markets, small state, low tax, individual liberty and big defence) and are therefore memorable.  In promoting these ideas, think tanks were keen to avoid disputes about the specific policies that followed from them, but kept the ideas general so that people would commit to the principles, rather than arguing about details. The value of the five principles of a good society developed here is their simplicity and the fact that they have wide ownership, not that they cover every eventuality.

What came across from the discussions leading to the principles is that people give the highest importance to their relationships in the world – their family and their friends.  People want security in their lives – they want to have enough to live on and a bit extra, but they do not seek wealth. They are not seeking flashy cars, expensive phones or fashionable clothes. People mostly want to escape the daily struggle of trying to make ends meet and to be comfortable. This is about trying to escape a state of ‘constant worry’ and becoming ‘free from care’.  People do not want to be poor and certainly don’t want to live on benefits. They want to have reasonably well paid work so that they can pay their way and have a few luxuries. What matters is that people are sufficiently free to live the lives that they want, and material possessions matter less than community. Orton (2016) suggests that the dominant forces of a good society are a combination of security and freedom.

This is a very different model of society from the one we have now, which is based on the principle of individuals maximising their income. Success is measured by footfall in the shops and increases in per capita GDP each year. This approach has produced a society that helps a wealthy minority to flourish while one-fifth experience chronic poverty and many people on middle incomes fear for their futures.

Our findings suggest that people are concerned with wellbeing, not being well off.  People want society to be reorganised to emphasise social criteria. People want to enjoy caring and respectful relationships, to exercise their creativity and to build sustainable futures for themselves and coming generations.  They do not value a society where wealth is an emblem of success. Nine of the top ten indicators of a good society in our population surveys involved social criteria, not economic ones. There is a strong desire to reform the economy so that it works for people and not for profit.

The picture of this society bears some similarity to a world that John Maynard Keynes (1930) thought might be possible by 2030 if humanity solved its economic problems and enjoyed a world of leisure. Not having to work for a living would bring ‘economic bliss’. This could be the salvation of humanity, because people would be secure, while also being free to do whatever they wanted. As individuals, people could use leisure to develop their creativity, engage in lifelong learning and, if so inclined, enhance their spirituality. As social beings, people could spend more time with their families and friends. As active members of society, people could contribute through voluntary work and concentrate on making our planet beautiful and sustainable, developing a new respect for nature while reaching out to people from different cultures to improve the cohesion of our societies. Our world would resemble the Buen Vivir movement in Latin America, which is based on the principles of harmony between human beings and nature. In creating the social bliss to accompany economic bliss, we would banish the fear and hatred that stem from our insecurities.

Part 3: Getting there

So how do we get there? This is the hardest question of all, because there are no magic bullets and the political system is gridlocked with old ideas that bear little relationship to the ideas that have emerged from our study.

A key question is where will change come from? It is most unlikely that change will come from the top of our society, and that is probably a good thing. We need organic development that shifts power, rather than policy solutions that fix problems.  The new society needs to come from civil society, where there are many creative solutions emerging. Unless solutions emerge from the demand side of governance, they will not stick.

At first sight, this observation may seem at odds with our observations on the success of the Beveridge Plan. However, closer examination of history suggests that the Beveridge Plan contained the seeds of its own downfall. It emerged from government as a blueprint for a new society following the Second World War, and stemmed from all-party agreement that social security should be the foundation stone for the peace.  It worked for a time, but it unravelled because it was based on the principle that ‘the gentleman in Whitehall knows best’. The post-war settlement enabled people to be passive in relation to questions of employment and social security. In Why successful movements are all about relationships, Hilary Cottam describes ‘Beveridge’s mistake’ on the welfare state: people were ‘done to’, not ‘done with’ (Cottam, 2014). Similarly, Julien Le Grand’s famous (1997) study Knights and knaves characterises the public as ‘pawns’. Towards the end of his life, Beveridge (1948) saw that the welfare state undermined what people acting together could do to bring social advance and argued for the government to promote a vigorous programme of mutual aid. However, the damage was done.  This did not matter too much in the first years of the Welfare State, because the system was good at providing jobs, services and benefits. When this began to falter in the 1960s and 1970s, the cold bureaucracy of the state began to be hated by people who depended on it. The social security system was attacked from the right by organisations like the Adam Smith Institute and from the left through organisations like claimants’ unions.

In post-Brexit Britain, where contempt for the establishment is widespread, ordinary people, particularly young people, are no longer willing to play a passive role and accept blueprints handed down from above. Governments are not trusted and have neither the capacity nor the legitimacy to provide the answers. The growth of Poverty Truth Commissions, and their slogan of ‘Nothing about us without us is for us’, signifies the new mood. An example of what people can do for themselves is the Living Wage Campaign. Ordinary people in the East End of London – despite their evident diversity – united around a common aim and changed government policy from below. If enough people want change, change will happen.

Goldstraw and Diamond (2017) show that a significant strand in the way people in civil society think about a good society involves a ‘society based on strong human values of public love, care, tolerance, respect and kindness’. (p 4) This vision of a good society recognises the globalized and heterogeneous world in which we live, and stresses the importance of collaborative and supportive relationships to build trust within and between organisations.

There is evidence of much activity at grassroots level that, if scaled up in appropriate ways, could build the demand side of governance for the world envisaged by Goldstraw and Diamond (Knight, Chigudu, and Tandon, 2002). Our research studied a group of community activists in Hull, who are working to develop #thehullwewant.  Although budget cuts mean that the local authority finds it difficult to fund voluntary groups, numerous community activists have realised that if they share assets and time, they can take control of their lives and build the kind of inclusive communities that they want. Working with the university, 75 students are working on placements with organisations in the city to do this.  The combined action of the activists and the students is designed to hold events and to foster conversations across the city that do not normally happen – between different cultures and age groups and offering a welcome to migrants and new arrivals. The purpose is to have a connected and participatory culture that is attractive and relevant to everyone rather than just to socially active people with time on their hands. The goal is to make Hull a place that people are happy to live in and to give everyone a sense of optimism for the future in a place where people are connected to one another.

This example shows that ordinary people, including those on low incomes, are competent to run their own affairs. This negates what historian E.P. Thompson described as two fallacies. One is the ‘Fabian orthodoxy’, in which ‘the great majority of working people are seen as passive victims of laissez faire’. The other is the ‘orthodoxy of the empirical economic historians’, in which working people are classed ‘as a labour force, as migrants, or as the data for statistical series’.  (p 2)

If we wish to develop a good society, it is vital that ordinary people have power and agency to create the society that they want.  The good society is as much in the making of it as in the finished product. As Neal Lawson (2016) has put it:

‘The Good Society is one that we create, it cannot be something done to us. Hope comes from the insight that the way we make things happen in the 21st Century allows the means and ends of a good society to be aligned. ‘You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage,’ wrote Terry Pratchett in Witches Abroad. Nowhere is this truer than the ending of poverty, a process that now can and must involve the poor being their own agents of change.’  (p 9)

Activists cannot do this alone. Multiple organisations need to be involved.  At local level this is easier to manage than at national level because people know each other.  In commissioned work for the Webb Memorial Trust, Neil McInroy (2016) set out how this might be done.  Taking advantage of the devolution arrangements, local authorities and other local organisations have the opportunity to reimagine how local economies might work and to figure out different roles for business, communities and anchor institutions.  Inclusive decision making and imaginative supply chains can be delivered locally with local people taking a big part in how change happens. This approach has been taken in Preston. Guardian journalist Aditya Chakrabortty featured the story in a series on economic alternatives and showed how Preston ‘hit rock bottom and took back control’ (Chakrabortty, 2018).

What these examples show is that relationships between organisations are critical.  Single organisations delivering resources, outputs or deliverables for the field have very little impact if they are conceived as technocratic fixes (Osborn, 2011). What is required instead is a transformational process to develop an ecosystem where everyone is included in developing the society we want. If a good society is to be achieved, it must be achieved organically within society. This is a form of organising that fits Mary Parker Follett’s (1996) ‘power with’ model, in which power is conceived as an extensible resource, rather than a ‘power over’ model, in which power is cast as a zero-sum game in which if one organisation has it, another is denied it. Such an approach involves flattening power structures and bringing in people who would not normally be involved.  Johnson (2012) calls the people who act this way ‘peer progressives’.

Our study showed that there are thousands of people and organisations working for a better world; but efforts are often splintered, divided and competitive. There is no social movement that joins together efforts to improve the environment, reduce poverty, raise the status of women, guarantee human rights for oppressed groups such as migrants and refugees, and combat racism. Civil society lacks a coordinated strategy so that there is a cacophony of voices. While some see infighting as a democratic virtue (Greta, 2017), significant advance has been made only when good leaders with an explicit change agenda organise a mass of people. There is a link from John Ruskin through to Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Citizens UK.  Such efforts require people and organisations to see themselves as part of an ecosystem where the criterion of success is the impact on the field, rather than the profile of the individual organisation. Our study gained evidence of organisations within the poverty lobby competing with each other for attention, rather than building a transformative base for change. Examples from the US can show the way here. O’Hara (2018) describes two years of coalition building to prepare for peaceful direct action in state capitals across the US to campaign against poverty, involving thousands of citizens.

There is a useful thread of change-based literature that helps with joining up civil society actions.  Paulo Freire (1970) saw education as a process in which people can transform the world about them. Saul Alinsky (2010) developed a community organizing manual in Rules for radicals. Anne Firth Murray’s (2011) Paradigm found has become the basis of women’s empowerment across the world. These books demonstrate that real progress can be made when people organise for change with a noble aim, use a responsible method, and ensure that they serve both the self-interest of the participants and the wider public interest. Effective approaches entail replacing standard methods based on hierarchy and competition with feminist principles of respect, reciprocity, cooperation and inclusivity. The work of the Global Fund for Community Foundations to #ShiftThePower in international development is an example of how this can be done (Hodgson and Knight, 2016). This is changing the language of development aid and #ShiftThePower is fast becoming a social movement across the world. In the UK, the TCPA has brought together a powerful coalition of like-minded people and organisations through its #planning4people campaign to work to change planning for the better.

The question is how to bring all these strands together.  Compass intends to invite people to a Common Platform to do just this. The Common Platform will bring together thousands of people and hundreds of organisations to build not just the ideas but the means to build a good society – one that is much more equal, democratic and sustainable. The Common Platform will be a generative space to develop ideas and approaches that will allow existing small-scale innovations in civil society and the social economy to be scaled up and joined up to produce the moral, democratic and economic conditions for a good society. It will combine ideas, practices and alliances for transformative change. The Common Platform is not about producing a manifesto that everyone must sign; it is about producing a body of work and a set of relationships that lay the basis for the eventual transformation of society.

The Common Platform will be particularly useful for local organisations that wish to disseminate their work to a wide group of people.  People working in local initiatives often feel isolated and, while they may do ground-breaking work, they have no way of communicating their learning outside their immediate sphere of influence. The Common Platform will enable people to connect with their peers at local level, but also more widely both at national and international level.

Based on the ideas of Unger (2007), the Common Platform will scale up what works at local level into a coherent set of propositions for a good society.  By looking at the intersections between various approaches, it will be possible to find the common points between solutions to inequality, democratic decline and environmental destruction. By welding together such diverse approaches, a coherent view of how to move forward on policy and practice will emerge through a process of abductive reasoning (a technique that begins with an incomplete set of observations and proceeds to the likeliest possible explanation for the set).

Using these principles through an ‘open platform’ will prefigure new collaborative ways of building visions and making change happen. The principles will be the building blocks for alliances and networks to create a broad-based movement to strengthen ‘the demand side of governance’.

It is, of course, is no easy matter to build a field in this way.  It requires that people and organizations collaborate and compromise, rather than pursue their own agendas (Abercrombie et. al., 2015). It also involves conflict with vested interests.  As Fredrick Douglass (1857) said: ‘power concedes nothing without a demand, it never has and it never will’. (p 1)

While acknowledging that it will be difficult, citizens organizing to build the demand side of governance is not impossible – as the experience of Citizens UK and the living wage shows.  Launched by Citizens UK in 2001, the Living Wage campaign has won over £500 million of additional wages, lifting over 150,000 people out of working poverty. What has been remarkable about the campaign is its ability to mobilize the broad-based support of ordinary citizens.  

Such a feat was possible because a new paradigm of power is emerging that flattens hierarchies and undermines traditional authority (Timms and Heimans, 2018). This paradigm is close to the vision of a good society based on strong human values of public love, care, tolerance, respect and kindness identified by Goldstraw and Diamond (2017).  In turn, this vision is related to the ‘beloved community’ identified by the civil rights movement 50 years ago in which two seeming antinomies – power and love – are fused together. As Martin Luther King (1967) put it: ‘What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.’ (p 1) Kahane (2010) has brought this vision up to date and shows how it might be applied in the 21st century.

The weakness of anti-poverty campaigners has been their inability to mobilize public opinion.  When Gordon Brown was chancellor of the exchequer, he asked the poverty lobby to do more to influence public opinion be more supportive of his poverty reduction efforts (Brown, 2004). For politicians to bring in progressive policies, they need people affected by the problem to organize and lobby for change. When demand becomes strong enough, governments will have no choice but to negotiate with civil society and respond to this organised power. They will then be forced to accept their responsibility for developing society and eradicating poverty.


Abercrombie, R., Harries, E., and Wharton, R. (2015) Systems change: A guide to what it is and how to do it, London: New Philanthropy Capital and Lankelly Chase. Available here.

Alinsky, S. (2010) Rules for radicals: A pragmatic primer for realistic radicals, New York: Vintage.

Beveridge, W. (1948) Voluntary action, London: George Allen and Unwin.

Brown, G. (2004) ‘The Joseph Rowntree Centenary Lecture’, Available here

Chakrabortty, A. (2018) ‘In 2011, Preston hit rock bottom. Then it took back control’, The Guardian, 31 January.

Cockett, R. (1994) Thinking the unthinkable: think-tanks and the economic counter-revolution, 1931-83, London: Harper Collins.

Coates, D. (2012) From the Poor Law to Welfare to Work: What we have learned from a century of anti-poverty policies, London: Smith Institute and the Webb Memorial Trust.

Douglass, F. (1857) ‘If there Is no struggle, there Is no progress’, West India Emancipation” speech at Canandaigua, New York. Available here.

Cottam, H. (2014) ‘Why successful movements are all about relationships’, New Statesman, 2 May.

Follett, M.P. (1995) ‘Power’, in P. Graham (ed), Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of management: A celebration of writings from the 1920s, Washington DC: Beard Books, pp 97-120.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Goldstraw, K. and Diamond, J (2017) Civil Society and a Good Society: Conclusions from our Collaborative Conversations, Edge Hill: I4P and Webb Memorial Trust.

Greta, C. (2017) ‘Six reasons why the left should keep on infighting’, Transformation, 17 March. Available here.

Hatton, T. and Bailey, R. (2000) ‘Seebohm Rowntree and the post-war poverty puzzle’. Economic History Review, Vol. 53 (No.3), pp 517-543.

Heimans J. and Timms, H. (2018) New power: How it’s changing the 21st century and why you need to know, London: Macmillan.

Hodgson, J. and Knight, B. (2016) ‘#ShiftThePower: The rise of community philanthropy’, Alliance, Vol 21, No 4, December, pp 31-5.

Horton, T. and Gregory, J. (2009) The solidarity society: Fighting poverty in an age of affluence, London: Fabian Society and Webb Memorial Trust.

Hudson, L. (1967) Contrary imaginations: A psychological study of the English schoolboy, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Johnson, S. (2012) Future perfect: The case for progress in a networked age, New York: Riverhead Books.

JRF Analysis Unit (2017) UK Poverty 2017, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Judt, T. (2010) Ill fares the land, London: Penguin Books.  

Kahane, A. (2010) Power and love, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Keynes, J.M. (1930) ‘Economic possibilities for our grandchildren ‘, The Nation and Athenaeum, 48(3), pp 358-73.

King, ML. (1967) ‘Where do we go from here?’ Address given at the Eleventh Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta Georgia, 16 August. Available here.

Knight, B. (2017) Rethinking poverty: What makes a good society? Bristol: Policy Press.

Knight, B., Chigudu, H. and Tandon, R. (2002) Reviving democracy: Citizens at the heart of governance, London: Earthscan.

Lakoff, G. (2004) Don’t think of an elephant! Know your values and frame the debate – the essential guide for progressives, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Lawson, N. (2016) The context for a world without poverty, Compass. Available here.

Lederach, J.P. (2005) The moral imagination: The art and soul of building peace, New York: Oxford University Press.

Le Grand, J. (1997) ‘Knights, knaves or pawns? Human behaviour and social policy’, Jnl Soc. Pol., 26, 2, 149–69.

McGarvey, D. (2017) Poverty Safari, Edinburgh: Luath Press.

McInroy, N. (2015) Forging a good local society: Tackling poverty through a local economic reset, Manchester: CLES and Webb Memorial Trust.

Mills, C.W. (1959) The sociological imagination, New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Murray, A.F. (2011) Paradigm found: Leading and managing for positive change, Novato: New World Library.

O’Hara, M. (2018) ‘US citizens are standing up against poverty – the UK should follow suit’, The Guardian, 14 May.

Orton, M. (2015) Something’s not right, London: Compass and Webb Memorial Trust.

Orton, M. (2016) ‘Creating a shared vision’, Webb Memorial Trust Supplement, New Statesman, 21 October.

Osborn, S. (2011) ‘People, places and poverty: getting away from the neighbourhood’, in Knight, B. (ed) (2011) A minority view: What Beatrice Webb would say now, London: Alliance Publishing Trust and Webb Memorial Trust.

Ostry, J.D., Loungani, P. and Furceri, D. (2016)Neoliberalism: Oversold?’ Finance & Development, June, Vol 53, No 2.

Piketty, T. (2013) Capital in the 21st century, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Quinn, D. (1999) Beyond civilization: humanity’s next great adventure, New York, Three Rivers Press

Robson, B., Bradford, M. and Parkinson, M. (1994) Assessing the impact of urban policy, London: Stationery Office.

Sandel, M.J. (2012) What money can’t buy: The moral limits of markets, London: Penguin.

Shildrick, T. and MacDonald, R. (2013) ‘Poverty talk: How people experiencing poverty deny their poverty and why they blame “the Poor”’, The Sociological Review, 61(2): 285–303.

TCPA (2015) #Planning4People manifesto. Available here.

Thompson, E.P. (1963) The making of the English working class, London: Victor Gollancz.

Tucker, J. (2017) The Austerity Generation: the impact of a decade of cuts on family incomes and child poverty, London: Child Poverty Action Group.

Unger, R. (2007) The self awakened: Pragmatism unbound, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Unwin, J. (2013) Why fight poverty?  London: London Publishing Partnership.

Webb, S. and Webb, B. (1909) The break up of the poor law, London: Longmans.

Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. (2009) The spirit level: Why equal societies almost always do better, London: Allen Lane.

Posted on 03 Jan 2019   Categories: Blog, From Rethinking Poverty, Good Society, New economic models, Our vision Related Tags:  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *