Starting a conversation – Andrew Milner on the launch of Rethinking Poverty
The Webb Memorial Trust launched the book Rethinking Poverty: What makes a good society? in the Shaw Library at the London School of Economics (LSE) on 13 September 2017.
Eight years ago the Trust decided to spend out, closing at the end of the year and devoting its remaining funds to rethinking the issue of poverty in the UK. The book is the culmination of this activity and a legacy document for the Trust, explained Trust Secretary Mike Parker.
Barry Knight, author of the report, began with a caution: ‘We haven’t come with clear messages in an age of confusion. We want to start a conversation and we want you to be part of it.’ The starting point for the research was that ‘the current narrative on poverty is bust’. We can play with it statistically, but this simply distracts us from the fact that we know everything about poverty but how to solve it. And it’s divisive, splitting those who blame the system for poverty and those who blame the poor for being poor. We have been trying to describe poverty by ‘using the language of Beveridge when the age of Beveridge has gone’. After a lot of time, soul-searching and some wasted grants, said Knight, we finally came to two questions that would reframe the debate.
The first was ‘what would a society without poverty look like?’ Exploring this through different research techniques, including population surveys of 12,000 people and participatory research, had led to the second: a realization that, instead of asking how we end poverty, we should ask ‘who ends poverty?’ This poses the problem in terms of agency and draws on the responses of a whole panoply of actors and techniques, an ecosystem. It asks what people can do, rather than what should be done on their behalf.
Agency is the key, said Knight. Party politics is failing because it hasn’t grasped the mood of the times. Brexit made this clear. It was ‘the rational scream of the dispossessed’. We need to address this with a new approach that relies on different kinds of formulation that cross over organisational and factional lines. Policy fixes – demonstrably – don’t work. Transformational processes are needed. He concluded: ‘The welfare state narrative is broken, the neoliberal narrative is broken. We need another one now!’
Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman, took this up in a subsequent interview with Knight. We are in an interregnum between an old narrative and a new. What we can see are morbid symptoms of the present society. What’s happening? Jason Cowley asked. We have forgotten values, replied Knight. We are not asking the big, normative questions and we are ignoring the grassroots. What the research for this book had shown him was a yearning for community. ‘We need to use the power of agency to develop that idea of community.’ While there is a recognition among political parties that something is wrong, they are paralysed by party politics. Change needs to come from civil society, but for that to happen, leadership, cooperation and networks are necessary.
Isn’t this asking too much of people and not enough of government? wondered Jason Cowley. National government can do some things, responded Knight, guaranteeing a basic citizens’ income and ensuring an adequate supply of housing, for example. But the rest needs to be done largely at local level – by local government, local businesses, citizens’ associations. ‘People need to get involved.’
Is the progressive left too diverse and divided for the social solidarity we need, asked Cowley. We must not succumb to the tyranny of perfection, said Knight, arguing over the details of a precise approach. What we need are principles.
From the floor, Big Issue founder (Lord) John Bird said, in a display of iconoclasm, that he loved the bottom-up, people-powered idea running through Barry’s book but despised the Webbian hagiography. They loaded the poor with ideology and operated from above, which reinforced a paternalism that treats the poor as a separate species. As a result, we have removed most of the escape routes. We need to move beyond Webbian and Dickensian paternalism, and use poverty as a resource to get out of poverty, learning the lessons it teaches to help people overcome it themselves.
If the current political model has failed, asked Kate Green MP, a trustee of the Webb Memorial Trust, how do you account for Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity, especially among the young? Though Labour gained an unexpectedly high vote in the last election, Knight pointed out, they didn’t win, and it’s possible that the ‘bounce’ may have been due as much to the unpopularity of Theresa May as to the popularity of Corbyn. Another questioner wondered about the relationship between poverty and inequality. In response, Knight noted that inequality is central to poverty, yet there is nothing about it in current policy.
A final round of questioners wondered how we transform the portrayal of poverty, how we overcome the pervasive distrust of the establishment, especially among young people (shouldn’t this event have been held in a community hall, not in an elite institution?) and how we take account of alternative forms of economics in transforming society? The common denominator to all three questions is power, said Knight. We have to move from ‘power over’ to ‘power with’, he argued. The critical question is how we get away from the dominance of elites who are increasingly remote from the rest of society and transfer the locus of decision and action to groups who have become excluded from them.
A short animated film and a poem brought a change of pace and tone. John Akinde from Studio 3 Arts collective in Barking, East London, read his own poem, ‘Youth Will Not Die’. Youth are ‘barely appeased by sugary snacks and junk food’, he began. In vivid language, his poem spoke of resilience, of a sense of self-awareness and self-worth among young people, despite being treated with suspicion and fobbed off with stale ideas (‘ageing cows handed to the butchers to be slaughtered – yeah!’ spoken in a tone of anticipatory relish). He explained that writing the poem had been a process, following discussions with contemporaries about their view of poverty. The poem was one outcome of the process. Another was the realisation that young people are still keen to take part in a society that seeks to marginalise them. ‘Bring us to the table,’ urged one of his colleagues. ‘We have ideas and we do care.’
Rethinking Poverty is a fitting legacy for the Webb Memorial Trust, several speakers emphasised. The Webbs were researchers, analysts and campaigners who sought to bring about change through influencing those who dominated public life, said Baroness Dianne Hayter, a Webb trustee. ‘I hope the legacy of the Trust will do the same to poverty as the movement Beatrice Webb herself started a century ago.’
The Webbs’ idea of policy based on evidence, which is central to Rethinking Poverty, still resonates, said LSE Director Minouche Shafik, and it is still part of the LSE ethos. ‘We will tap into that legacy,’ she said. Beyond the current wave of populism and austerity, another political window is coming, and when it opens, the LSE will be there.
In closing proceedings, Richard Rawes, Chair of the Webb Memorial Trust, thanked all who had contributed to the book and to this event and drew attention again to the Webb’s notion of permeation – working with those of all parties to persuade them of the importance of poverty and that it can be solved.
Andrew Milner is a freelance writer and editor and associate editor of Alliance magazine.
Watch the Rethinking Poverty animation and read more about our work:
- Imagining a new future – former Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust Secretary, Stephen Pittam on Rethinking Poverty
- Huffington Post: Poverty Needs a New Story – Webb Memorial Trust Director, Barry Knight
- From paternalistic elites to participatory networks – Compass Director, Neal Lawson on Rethinking Poverty