Rethinking Poverty: Towards the Webb Legacy – a summary
by Caroline Hartnell
Barry Knight’s book Rethinking Poverty:What makes a good society? was published last September, eliciting a wide range of responses, published on the Rethinking Poverty blog. Barry’s new paper, summarised here, looks at what we have learned from these responses and what we will do next.
The book’s main argument is that, since our efforts to end poverty over the past 75 years have failed, we should rethink our approach. Rather than addressing poverty directly, we should develop the society we want and use the process to design poverty out.
Reviews of the book demonstrate a hunger for this idea. For Christopher Harris, the key point is that ‘only by collectively envisaging the society that we all want – a positive frame – can we discover effective ways forward to more just and fair communities’. For Rosie Ferguson of Gingerbread, ‘the narrative in Rethinking Poverty resonates with what single parents tell us’, while philanthropy adviser Jon Edwards finds the arguments analogous to the failure of development strategies across the world.
Amid the general sense of approval, one reviewer stood against the central idea. Kate Green, MP for Stretford and Urmston, cautions us not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. Citing the progress of the Labour government between 1999 and 2011/12 in reducing child poverty, she suggests that the old solutions ‘redistribute resources from those with more to those who are poorer’ – something only government has the fiscal levers to do.
This is a salutary reminder not to let the state off the hook, echoed by other reviewers including Stephen Pittam, who suggests that a ‘progressive taxation system and good universal public services … must surely be part of the better future that we hope is before us’.
“progressive taxation system and good universal public services … must surely be part of the better future that we hope is before us”
It is true that the last Labour government reduced poverty. It is also true that by 2005 it had run out of steam and its policies had reached the limit of what they could do. It was precisely because the bottom quintile remained out of reach of even the most enlightened policies that the Webb Memorial Trust began its work on poverty. As Jennifer Wallace points out, ‘this top-down model of public services seems to operate on the basis of diminishing returns, and arguably always left a proportion of the population behind’. The fatal flaw in the policies of the last Labour government was that they were easily undone. As Albert Ruesga points out, it is easy to undo policies if people don’t care enough about them.
The key question is how to unify people behind issues so that state policies are based on what they want, rather than what politicians think they want. Politicians followed the Beveridge Plan for 30 years because it was popular. How can we build a new consensus?
Developing a constructive programme
We need to develop what Stephen Pittam calls, quoting Gandhi, a ‘constructive programme’ with a new vision. Bassma Kodmani calls for ‘… a model of leadership based on services framed in love … isn’t love what we lack most in the social order that our governments have created for us?’
Kieran Goddard suggests that constructing this vision might involve developing scenarios based on what we want and what we don’t want, models based on contrasting asset strategies and deficit strategies; and imagining ‘a society that is capable of holding, generating and talking about human worth in a way that isn’t centred purely around economic contribution’. Lisa Jordan points out that many young people are looking to use markets to find solutions to complex social problems, eg ‘building clean, green, fair products’ and ‘building markets at the bottom of the pyramid as a replacement for charity to address the needs of the poor’.
“Imagine a society that is capable of holding, generating and talking about human worth in a way that isn’t centred purely around economic contribution”
Gerry Salole stresses the importance of the ‘incredible rise in recent years of the worldwide community philanthropy ecosystem’. The #ShiftThePower campaign, made up of many hundreds of small people-led organisations across the world, is a potent vehicle for organising the constructive programme. Government too has an important role to play. ‘Public services must be designed to support personal and community agency,’ says Jennifer Wallace.
How to weld together these disparate forces? Rethinking Poverty suggests that such a movement must start within civil society and develop organically. The research leading to Rethinking Poverty developed a group of organisations that have begun to think in this way. As Neil Lawson says: ‘The book is not a collection of words and pages so much as a collection of groups and ideas.’
Building on these relationships, it would be possible for people and organisations to come together to co-design programmes to usher in a good society, reaching out to others to join them in the task. The group would need to operate from an independent platform, entirely separate from any political party and inclusive of different views.
The next steps will be to support the emergence of such a platform from within civil society to develop a broad-based programme to deliver a society that people want and that will affect how governments and other actors address poverty. The key word here is ‘support’. As an educational charity, our role should be to stimulate activity not control it.
Our programme will have three dimensions:
- Create a narrative on a good society We will create a bank of stories and cases studies on what works. The revival of Preston as a result of persuading six local public bodies to commit to spending locally wherever possible is just such a success story.
- Connect promising approaches We will work to disseminate these examples and connect them, joining up UK experience with international work. Such an approach will build ‘the demand side of governance’, in which citizens feel that their lives matter in public affairs and that they have a means to affect the decisions that govern their lives.
- Convene key people and initiatives We will bring key people together to consider what can be learned from the first two sets of activities. The object would be to develop a critical mass of people and organisations who want to develop a joined-up approach to social change. Our primary role will be to support organisations in their agenda and join up what others do, rather than take initiatives of our own.
In her critique of Rethinking Poverty, Kate Green says the kind of book that she would want to read would be a ‘manual for how we collectively end poverty in Britain for ever’. That is the challenge we should aim to meet.