Building communities for the Scotland we want
by Barry Knight
What follows is the text of a speech given by Barry Knight at a conference of the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA) on 12 June 2019. The speech draws on two main sources: first, the research conducted for the Webb Memorial Trust published in 2017 as a book called Rethinking Poverty: What makes a good society? and second, material from the Rethinking Poverty online discussion hub.
In this room, there are 300 people from 142 different organizations. I want to suggest that the asset base of those organizations, combined with the skills, knowledge and experience of people in this room, can – if you act together – have a powerful effect on poverty and build the kind of Scotland that you and your constituencies want.
Poverty and toxic politics
In launching her Minority Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law in 1909, Beatrice Webb said ‘it is now possible to end destitution’.(1) Her report, which became the foundation for the postwar welfare state, suggested that the state had the responsibility to guarantee a basic standard of life for all its citizens.
In early work for the Webb Memorial Trust, we located two key factors in poverty reduction: having a decent income and having a decent home. When these two factors are present, poverty disappears. Ending poverty is therefore a simple matter, and it is extraordinary that in the century since Beatrice Webb’s report we have not managed to do so.
There is one factor, above all others, that stops us. This is political will. This, in turn, is shaped by public opinion, which is the largest stumbling block to progress on poverty.
Together with YouGov, we investigated social attitudes towards poverty. In social surveys, we found that only a third of the population are serious about ending it. The word ‘poverty’ divides us. In our focus groups, people would disagree about whether poverty is caused by structural matters such as economic management and social inequality or by feckless welfare scroungers too lazy to get out of bed to find a proper job.
In 2013, Julia Unwin – at that time director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – described the debate about poverty as ‘angry and fruitless’.(2) Since that time, things have got worse. Rory Stewart, writing in this month’s Prospect magazine, talks about the ‘shrill absolutism’ that has overtaken public debate and brought the idea of political compromise to its knees.(3) There is much shouting and almost no listening.
Such division is symptomatic of a wider decline in trust, affecting not only institutions such as government and politicians but extending to charities, which have fallen from grace in the past 25 years.
At the root of our difficulties is the deficit-mindedness in our society. Headlines in newspapers scream at us about what is wrong. The persistent use of terms such as poverty depress us, and discussion of their meaning divides us. It is my contention that we can never make progress if we are depressed and divided. The poverty lobby has lost ground in recent years and the statistics show that poverty is getting worse.
The importance of positive framing
To turn this around, we need to frame issues positively. In our research, we used the concept of a ‘good society’, and this yielded better results. When we asked people about this idea, the proportion of people who said that a good society would contain no poverty rose to more than 90 per cent. Such positive framing changes the emotional tone of discussion. As George Lakoff, a neuroscientist, points out, if we want to make positive change, we must focus on the society we want, not on the society we don’t want.
We need to rethink how we use language here. How we talk to one another really matters. If we are to create change, we need to be able to listen to one another and to develop a world that is fit for every one of us to live in. This is a people-first approach and, as someone from a housing association said to me over dinner last night, what makes housing associations distinctive in the housing field is that they are based on a ‘people first’ principle.
Building the society we want
We need to reform not just how we say things but also what we say. One of the reasons the public debate is so toxic is that we are living between two broken cultures. Since the Second World War, we have pursued two different economic models, both of which are now past their sell-by date. Until the mid 1970s, we had a mixed economy of welfare, in which the state played a leading part in regulating the economy to ensure full employment and social security for citizens. From the mid 1970s onwards, we have pursued market freedom in search of untrammelled economic growth while downplaying social security, in the belief that increased prosperity would deliver greater wellbeing.
The fact is that these old ways of doing and deciding things, in which we were either cogs in a corporate or state machine or consumers in a market free for all, are failing to meet our needs as human beings or to solve our social, economic and environmental problems.(4)
Yet, both the left and the right are looking backwards to these failed solutions. While the left wants to go back to the security of the mixed economy of welfare, the right wants to reassert the freedom of the market economy. Both sides seem oblivious to the failure of these approaches and overlook the fact that digitization and the rise of the network society create the possibility of a new era driven by collaborative action, with purposes aligned to both human and planetary needs.
To create this new era, we need to follow 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.’(5)
So, what does the model of a good society look like? In the research for Rethinking Poverty we spend a lot of time looking at how we might answer this question. We used social surveys, focus groups, meetings, reviews and studies. Finally, we shifted power to the people at the bottom end of society and asked them what research they wanted to do. We supported children, minorities and community groups to say what kind of society they want. The results were processed not by us but by nine sessions involving people from communities in the West Midlands. They came up with five interlinked principles for the society they want. These are:
- We all have a decent basic standard of living
- So, we are secure and free to choose how to lead our lives
- Developing our potential and flourishing materially and emotionally
- Participating, contributing and treating all with care and respect
- And building a fair and sustainable future for the next generations
What is clear from these principles is that money matters, but only to an extent. Yet, all governments since the Second World War have pursued more and more economic growth, believing that becoming rich holds the key to happiness. The evidence suggests that it doesn’t, because beyond a certain point, more money makes little difference. What people want is to ‘have enough’, so that they can be free to develop themselves and to make the choices they want. In short, they want both security and freedom. It is both/and, not either/or.
What is also clear is that both security and freedom are mediated through our relationships. By having a good set of relationships with family, friends and community, people feel secure and able to express their freedom in the company of others. Relationships are what really matter.
How do we get the society we want?
So, the next logical question might be ‘how do we get this good society?’
This is the wrong question. Answers to the ‘how’ question tend to produce a technocratic, product-based answer that can be put into a Gantt chart with roles allocated to powerful agencies such as government, together with recommendations to a range of stakeholders who are expected to comply with a top-down plan. The problem is that plans of this kind never work. Since they have to be driven from the centre, they struggle to achieve wide ownership among all the people necessary to make the plan work. A clear example is the Labour government’s programme to reduce poverty between 1997 and 2010. Since it had little ownership outside a narrow policy elite, it could be easily dismantled following the 2010 election.(6)
Instead of the ‘how?’ question, we need the ‘who?’ question. This takes us straight to the ‘people first’ approach I mentioned earlier. It takes us straight to agency and power and a process that is widely owned and shared. If we are working on the society we want, we all have to be involved and each take responsibility for ourselves. The key is co-creation, which is a method that sticks because when the job is finished everyone owns the result. The process is not therefore restricted to the agency of elites but includes everyone, which can bring in unexpected allies. As an example, I helped to set up the All Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty which included parliamentarians from all political groups. Internationally, this approach is being taken by the #ShiftThePower movement, initiated by the Global Fund for Community Foundations and taken up in many places across the world.
A great example of how this works is Citizens UK. This is a broad-based community organisation that works on issues that citizens decide are important. Unless citizens are willing to put effort into campaigns, Citizens UK will not work on those campaigns. Citizens UK is best known for their Living Wage Campaign, an initiative that started in someone’s front room in Wapping, became adopted in London’s East End, and then spread to the rest of the country as other groups took the issue up. A group of citizens in Tyne and Wear has more than tripled the number of living wage employers in the past three years, bringing Newcastle City Council and Virgin Money into the fold. As a local resident, I take part in these activities and we recently brought together 1,000 people to cross-question the mayoral candidates in the local government elections.
Solutions that stick need to have the active engagement of the population. The mixed economy of welfare and the neoliberal narrative that followed it were both based on top-down principles that gave people little sense that they could influence things that affect them. This lack of engagement is at the bottom of the current disaffection that has spread throughout society. As the economy has been remodelled to meet the needs of big companies rather than ordinary people, people have lost their role as key workers and as valued members of society. Feeling out of control, they look for someone to blame and the result is the negative narrative.
One way of countering this is through citizens’ assemblies. This has been proposed in England to get us out of the Brexit logjam and is an idea favoured by Nicola Sturgeon for Scotland. The practice has been well developed for young people by the Foundation for the Future in Belgium.
The importance of young people cannot be overstated. If you look at the age distribution of this room it tends to be middle-aged or older, and if we are to have the kind of future we want, we must involve the under 25s in our deliberations. The Brexit process has been almost entirely driven by people who are over 55, many of whom won’t be around for that long to see the consequences of their actions.
I now turn to the point which I started with: the power that resides in this room. Think about yourselves. You have amazing power to change things. You are in people’s lives. You cover the territory of Scotland. You are able to see trends. You will be with people as they come through the coming challenges – likely to be around changes to the labour market and social security. You can support them to organise to face the coming challenges.
Such organising from within is vital because I don’t see any external force coming to rescue people on low incomes any time soon. The economy is likely to drive down wage rates rather than put them up, and social security is likely to become ever more squeezed.
One of the things that could happen would be for you to extend your ‘people first’ approach with your constituency and bring them into your work in direct kinds of ways. In supporting their organising, you will abide by its central principle, which is ‘never do anything for anyone that they are capable of doing for themselves’. People are fundamentally capable, and – with appropriate support – can begin to think about the Scotland they want.
This is happening in two places in England – both of which have been left behind by economic changes over the past 30 to 40 years: Hull, which was once the bastion of the fishing industry, and Blackpool, which was once the place to go for summer holidays. People there recognise that there is no external rescue coming, and realise they must regenerate from within. They are using the assets they already have, maximising them to build their capacity, and working on trust and social relationships in their communities.
If you think about regenerating from within, you are starting from a very strong base. Not only do you have the 300 people in this room, you also have a very powerful staff group in your organisations and management committees supporting them. Even more important, you have a huge constituency of residents who can build power from the bottom up through various kinds of community development techniques.
You also have a really smart membership association – the SFHA – which can support you in this task and help you build a common narrative that you can use to advocate for the kind of society you want.
In this, you use your power and agency. While your financial asset base is strong and important, development is not just a question of money. The debate in the poverty industry is dominated by money and material factors. And yet, much more important than the transaction of resources is the transformation of power. We feel we have a good society when we have agency and feel we can do things.
What you can do right now is to begin to develop a positive view of the future and to use your legitimacy and agency to help the people around you to create the communities in Scotland that they want.
Once we have decided we want to do this, we can join together our forces to make it happen. It’s a question of being all in.
Resources that can help you are at https://www.rethinkingpoverty.org.uk/rethinking-poverty/
- Cited by David Coats (2012) From the poor law to welfare to work, London: Smith Institute, p 4.
- Julia Unwin (2013) Why fight poverty? London: London Publishing Partnership, p 1.
- Rory Stewart (2019) ‘Britain’s national genius lay in moderation—now we risk losing our heads’Prospect Magazine, 7 June 2019: https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/britains-national-genius-lay-in-moderation-now-we-risk-losing-our-heads
- Neal Lawson (2019) Transforming society from below and above, London: Compass: http://www.compassonline.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Compass_45-degree-change-1.pdf
- D Quinn (1999) Beyond civilization: humanity’s next great adventure, New York: Three Rivers Press, p 137.
- Kate Bell and Jason Strelitz (2014) Decent childhoods: Reframing the fight to end child poverty, Webb Memorial Trust: https://www.rethinkingpoverty.org.uk/publications/decent-childhoods
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