Imagining a new future – Stephen Pittam on Rethinking Poverty
Gandhi recognised that there are limits to what protest can achieve in trying to change society. He was a strong advocate of the ‘constructive programme’. So, Barry Knight is in good company when he suggests that the discourse of the anti-poverty movement is reframed into a positive agenda for what makes a good society rather than focusing on the failed agenda of much anti-poverty work. And it is refreshing to read a report which wants to open up a discussion on values and principles rather than prescribe policy recommendations for the way forward. Barry’s reasons for taking this approach are rooted in what is a compelling part of the book – a strong and well-written analysis of why the anti-poverty narrative has failed and how we have reached the depressing place we are in.
Few would argue with the five principles for a good society that have emerged from a broad range of commissioned work undertaken for the Webb Memorial Trust (a basic standard of living; to be 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; building a fair and sustainable future for the next generations).
The big question is: how do we go about making the change? Here there are hints at what is needed. Promoting participation and empowerment will be key. The idea of a basic income is increasingly discussed, and may be a trigger for the unlocking of the creative imagination that Barry Knight advocates, and suggests will be needed. We need the discussion on the strategy for reaching the good society but we need the new strategy too.
The neoliberal agenda may be all pervasive right now, but its abject failure is part of the reason this book has been written. The pendulum is on its way back.
The feature in the book that I found most challenging is its take on ideology – a sense that the ideologies of both left and right have failed. There is truth in this but there is no moral equivalency when it comes to addressing poverty between the notions of individual responsibility and structural inequality. The Welfare State may have been top down and constricting, but these limitations are easier to overcome than the rampant individualism of the right which has been so harmful for any notion of solidarity, and of community. As Richard Murphy has shown, austerity is a political choice, not a necessity. The neoliberal agenda may be all pervasive right now, but its abject failure is part of the reason this book has been written. The pendulum is on its way back. A progressive taxation system and good universal public services were two key features of the postwar social advance and must surely be part of the better future that we hope is before us. So, we need a stronger state, but it must be a reformed state with stronger forms of democracy including a fairer voting system and greater emphasis on participation than control.
I am at one with Barry when it comes to the limits of growth. We do want growth in new sustainable industries, but we are looking for the development of a new economy. The broadly defined environmental movement is one place that the kind of transformation that Barry is suggesting is being explored, with initiatives like Transition Towns. The linking of the environmental movement, with its focus on building a new economy, with an anti-poverty movement focused on building the good society could be a powerful force for change.
So, thanks Barry for getting us to think! We need to encourage visionary thinkers who can help us imagine a new future. I’ve been excited to read Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists. And this is why the work of Compass is so important.
Stephen Pittam is former Trust Secretary of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust
Watch the Rethinking Poverty animation and read more about our work:
- A narrative that resonates for single parents – Gingerbread Chief Executive, Rosie Ferguson
- Importance of housing underestimated – Paul Nicolson reflects on Rethinking Poverty
- Policy Press Blog: What’s next for poverty? – Webb Memorial Trust Director, Barry Knight