Talking Points looks back on 2019
by Rethinking Poverty
2019 has been a tumultuous year. While poverty and inequality continued their inexorable rise, the climate crisis finally erupted on to the national agenda. At the same time solutions began to emerge, from the Green New Deal to the four-day week – policies that were adopted by the Labour Party at its September conference. Any hopes of seeing them implemented were dashed at the general election on 12 December.
Talking Points 2018 led on rising poverty and inequality, and sadly Talking Points 2019 picks up the story from where 2018 left off. In January a BBC analysis of secondary school league tables showed it would take over 70 years for poorer pupils to catch up with their peers at GCSE, while new research from LSE found that inequality is more likely to be accepted in divided societies where the poorest and wealthiest tend to live separately. The Guardian featured a vivid illustration of our divided society with the story of London developer Henley Homes’ segregated play areas for richer and poorer residents. This particular story had a happy ending: two days later the Guardian reported that ‘segregated playground developer now says all children are welcome’.
In June Jeremy Corbyn said he would drop social mobility as the Labour goal, given that it seems to be all too compatible with ever greater and more entrenched inequality, and replace it with the goal of allowing all children to flourish. In September the Guardian’s Richard Partington reported that the UK is one of the most unequal countries in Europe. One sign of this is the gap in healthy life expectancy between different parts of Britain.
In December the Guardian reported that the gap between rich and poor is growing alongside the rise in the UK’s total wealth, while Rupert Neate’s ‘tale of two cities: London’s rich and poor in Tower Hamlets’ vividly illustrates what this gap means in real life. The Social Mobility Commission’s latest State of the Nation report and the House of Lords Committee on Intergenerational Fairness warn of the dangers of this level of inequality.
Causes of inequality: tax
First in line is tax. A report from the Fabian Society, Inequality by Stealth, published in April, showed how the government’s tax relief and social security policies provide more cash support to Britain’s richest 20 per cent of households than to the poorest 20 per cent. In the US, too, a new study, The Triumph of Injustice, showed that in 2018, for the first time ever, America’s richest billionaires paid a lower effective tax rate than the working class. Inequality in richer countries is largely down to government decisions, wrote Jonathan Aldred.
A discussion panel at January’s World Economic Forum became a sensation after a Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman, took attendees to task for their failure to address the key issue in the battle for greater equality: rich people not paying their fair share of taxes. A new report from Oxfam, Public Good or Private Wealth, published on 21 January, also called for an end to the under-taxation of rich individuals and corporations. Inequality is so bad, even Fox News anchors are decrying capitalism, reported Michael Massing in February.
Against this backdrop, US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested a near doubling of the top income tax rate and Elizabeth Warren proposed an annual wealth tax – a call endorsed by David Leonhardt in an article called What’s Really Radical? Not Taxing the Rich. The French economist Thomas Piketty called for a global wealth tax, while the OECD suggested higher inheritance taxes. Forget philanthropy. The super-rich should be paying proper taxes wrote Nick Cohen.
Causes of inequality: land ownership
The role of land ownership has been widely highlighted. If you want to tackle inequality, ‘then first change our land ownership laws’ said George Monbiot. Who Owns England? is the title of Guy Shrubsole’s new book. The answer: half of England is owned by less than 1 per cent of the population, with corporations and aristocrats the biggest landowners. Finally, Guy Standing’s new book Plunder of the Commons: a manifesto for sharing public wealth shows how much public wealth has been redirected to the 1 per cent in recent decades.
A review of inequality
Nobel-prize winning economist Sir Angus Deaton will be leading what is billed to be a landmark review of inequality in the UK. Responses to the launch of the study have been mixed. While Guardian economist Larry Elliott was positive, a group of 40 researchers, educators and campaigners on inequality have expressed concern about the composition of the review’s ‘expert panel’.
It would be impossible to summarise the very large number of items Talking Points has included during 2019 under the gloomy heading ‘bad news on poverty’. Growing child poverty, in-work poverty, increasing reliance on food banks, the dire effects of Universal Credit – these are just a few recurring themes. December brought its own clutch of stories: child homelessness surges by 80% under Conservative-led government, with at least 135,000 children to be homeless at Christmas. The growth of in-work poverty was widely reported to be the ‘statistic of the year’, while the number of Europe’s poorest regions in the UK ‘more than doubled’ to seven according to the latest Eurostat figures.
The effect of poverty in the UK was well summed up by UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston’s report following his visit to UK towns and cities and preliminary findings in November 2018, which concludes: ‘The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.’ Also in May, Human Rights Watch accused the UK government of breaching its international duty to keep people from hunger by pursuing ‘cruel and harmful polices’. Writing about how the US sees the UK now, Arwa Mahdawi cited a recent article from the New York Times suggesting the food bank is the image that best represents the state of modern Britain.
Solutions to poverty
Talking Points has also reported proposed solutions. In June a new report from CPAG provided a blueprint for making universal credit fit for families; the Living Wage Foundation launched the Living Hours pledge – by which employers guarantee a certain number of hours to people on zero hours contracts; the Scottish government announced that it would be fast-tracking the new Scottish Child Payment, an additional £10 a week for children in families on low incomes; the Trussell Trust favours reform of Universal Credit and abolition of the five-week wait for benefits. The advantages of UBS and UBI as solutions to poverty continue to be debated. While Compass announced the creation of a National Basic Income Hub at their annual conference in Brighton this year, the Labour Party adopted Universal Basic Services as a pillar of their national policy platform.
It has been encouraging to see ideas that first appeared in 2018 taking off in 2019. The Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll), officially launched in the US on 20 September 2018, called for new economic models based on human and planetary wellbeing rather than a narrow focus on growth and GDP.
In May New Zealand announced its first ‘wellbeing budget’. Although countries such as the UK have begun to measure the national rate of wellbeing, New Zealand is the first western country to base its entire budget on wellbeing priorities. The UK’s devolved governments have also put wellbeing at the heart of their approach, as described by Jennifer Wallace in Wellbeing and Devolution: Reframing the Role of Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Wales seven wellbeing goals are based on a National Conversation on The Wales We Want and enshrined in the Wellbeing for Future Generations Act.
The UK should stop obsessing over GDP and adopt a broader range of indicators when deciding how to spend money, wrote Dan Button in the Guardian. A step in the right direction is Labour’s proposed Future Generations Wellbeing Act for England, a national law to ensure that new policy decisions are gauged against people’s future health and wellbeing. October saw the launch of the Co-op’s Community Wellbeing Index. Their definition of wellbeing: ‘a collective feeling of leading a “good life”, shared and created by people and organisations’.
In 2018 NEF’s Aidan Harper made the case for ‘a new politics of time’ – harking back to John Maynard Keynes’ famous 1930 prediction that technological change and productivity improvements would eventually lead to a 15-hour workweek.
In February 2019 the UK’s Wellcome Trust considering moving all of its 800 head office staff to a four-day week in a bid to boost productivity and improve work-life balance (a plan that was disappointingly scrapped in April) while a four-day week trial by New Zealand financial services company Perpetual Guardian found lower stress but no cut in output and dozens of UK firms were trying out shorter working hours – and finding it’s good for workers, customers and the bottom line. In May call centre Simply Business, which employs more than 500 people, announced that it would launch a trial from September. It seems Swedes rate their general satisfaction with life more highly than people in most OECD countries, partly because of their approach to work-life balance.
In May Aidan Harper argued that the Green New Deal should include a four-day week in order to lower work-related energy use. But recent research from thinktank Autonomy argues that UK workers must move to a nine-hour week if current carbon levels do not change.
Discussion of new economic ideas continued in 2019. In April George Monbiot, in an article titled ‘Dare to declare capitalism dead – before it takes us all down with it’, argued that a complete rethink is needed. ‘I believe our task is to identify the best proposals from many different thinkers and shape them into a coherent alternative,’ he wrote.
Writing in the Guardian, Andy Beckett sketched ‘an emerging network of thinkers, activists and politicians’ who have begun to construct a new kind of leftwing economics. In April a new economics thinktank, Common Wealth, was launched by Mathew Lawrence with the aim of drawing all the strands together.
Topics highlighted in Talking Points over the year include:
- Inclusive growth, advocated in new research from Joseph Rowntree Foundation. CLES’s David Burch and Neil McInroy argued that we need an inclusive economy rather than inclusive growth.
- Modern Monetary Theory, of which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a fan, holds that the government can print all the money it needs.
- The politics of belonging This is the name of conservative think-tank Onward’s new project which argues that ‘policies that restore a sense of belonging’ are likely to be vote winners.
- The Foundational Economy focuses on the quantity and quality of vital services and goods to deliver economic growth rather than private consumption. Wales will be the first country in the world to embrace this approach.
- Transforming public services Hilary Cottam’s new book Radical Help has the potential to transform public services, wrote Jonathan Freedland in July. Cottam sees the current arrangements as both expensive and wasteful (because they don’t work). ‘Once people were given the means to take control of their lives, they embraced the challenge, made changes and improved their circumstances.’
THE CLIMATE CRISIS
Extraordinarily, the word ‘climate’ didn’t feature in Talking Points in 2018. This changed dramatically in 2019.
Inspired by Greta Thunberg, on 15 February thousands of children across the UK joined school strikes to call time on climate inaction in the UK. ‘We are going to change the fate of humanity’ said students in an open letter ahead of a global day of action on 15 March. A month later came Extinction Rebellion’s April Uprising. ‘Extinction Rebellion takes to the streets around the world in defence of our life-support systems,’ wrote George Monbiot. On 1 May the UK Parliament declared a climate emergency and on 19 June six House of Commons select committees announced plans for a citizens’ assembly. On 20 September came the global school climate strike, followed by Extinction Rebellion’s October Rebellion, which aimed to pressure the government to take action to address the climate emergency.
Green New Deal
Solutions have been put forward. On 1 April, the Green New Deal was launched in the UK. According to New Economics Foundation, a Green New Deal is a recognition that ‘to tackle climate change, we must transform the economy … in a way that works for the majority of people.’ Its highly publicised espousal by US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez notwithstanding, the idea was in fact hatched in a London bar in 2008.
‘We must have a green industrial revolution. And Labour will lead it,’ wrote shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey in the Observer on 27 April. Individuals from all political parties are now coming together to serve on the Institute for Public Policy Research’s newly launched Environmental Justice Commission to pursue this agenda. Following their September conference, the Labour Party looked set to commit itself to net zero emissions by 2030 – though the commitment had been watered down by the time it appeared in the Labour Manifesto.
Action has also been taking place at local level. In July Camden council in north London convened Britain’s first climate assembly. More than 50 residents and a team of climate experts considered more than 600 ideas, eventually agreeing on 17 proposals for action by the council. At least 11 councils are now using citizens’ assemblies to drive climate action. In November two leading think tanks, Localis and Green Alliance, warned the government to fast-track more local industrial strategies in order to help regions move to a zero-carbon economy.
There have also been numerous calls for action at the individual level. Local Futures advocates buying local food and other local products. Another key message is to reduce consumption. Don Fitz laments the abandonment of the slogan ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’. Today the message is: ‘Recycle, Occasionally Reuse, and Never Utter the Word “Reduce”.’
But if there is to be meaningful change, we need government to act. ‘Climate activists are angling for a mass government mobilisation equivalent to Roosevelt’s New Deal,’ wrote Richard Partington in July. In an attempt to outline a roadmap to a Green New Deal, Common Wealth has published a series of papers ‘that will add up to a guide to turbocharging the low-carbon economy, while supporting communities through the transition’.
THE BUSINESS WE WANT
Business is another area that barely featured in Talking Points in 2018. There does seem to have been a real change in business attitudes in 2019. ‘Even capitalists think the current model of capitalism is in trouble,’ wrote Michael Jacobs in the Guardian on 8 November.
In August came the news that the bosses of 181 of the US’s biggest companies, members of the influential lobby group Business Roundtable (BRT), had changed the official definition of ‘the purpose of a corporation’ from making the most money possible for shareholders to ‘improving our society’.
One UK businesses showing the way is the Guardian Media Group, which announced in October that it will be the first international news organisation to become a B Corporation. In May Richer Sounds founder Julian Richer announced that he was handing control of the hi-fi and TV retail chain to its 531 employees.
Workers are also trying to change their companies. In November more than 1,000 Google workers signed a public letter calling on Google to commit to an aggressive ‘company-wide climate plan’. This follows similar efforts by employees of Amazon and Microsoft.
Meanwhile research from CLES, Building an inclusive economy through social business, looks at how community businesses can support the development of more inclusive economies in deprived areas. In the US, ‘social justice enterprises’ are an addition to the US social movement ecosystem.
LOCAL ACTION OFFERS HOPE
In the midst of all the gloom, reports of promising local initiatives continued to appear. What follows are just a few examples. Could this local experiment be the start of a national transformation? asked George Monbiot in January, writing about Barking and Dagenham’s Every One, Every Day project to foster ‘bridging networks’. In April, CLES’s new pamphlet, New Municipalism in London, described three London boroughs’ efforts to tackle wealth extraction and extreme inequality.
In June, John Harris took us on a tour of ‘the independent groups from Devon to London who are seizing control’, while New East, New Thinking reflects the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham’s new approach to building local communities.
In November CLES published its own Manifesto for Local Economies, while the Guardian’s John Harris wrote that for real change, Labour should ditch its top-down thinking. ‘Flatpack Democracy has made clear: the optimum population size for meaningful grassroots democracy is between 10,000 and 50,000.’ NEF’s new website, Change the Rules, maps inspiring local, community and workplace initiatives to build a more democratic and sustainable economy.
INSPIRATION FROM OTHER COUNTRIES
- Finland Rough sleeping has been almost eradicated in Helsinki thanks to a groundbreaking scheme called Housing First. Can the UK learn from Finland’s approach?
- Canada Between 2015 and 2017, Canada reduced its official poverty rate by at least 20 per cent. A key component was local planning.
- Italy In Rome, members of the secret Gap organisation hide their identities because ‘fixing a broken pavement without official permission is technically illegal’.
- US The Poor People’s Campaign was relaunched to build a broad coalition committed to restructuring the American economy.
- Belgium An experiment with lottery-selected ‘Citizens Councils’ is being touted as a better way of deciding political policy.
- Mexico After 17 years of resistance to the construction of an airport megaproject, Mexico chose a lake instead of an airport.
WHAT NEXT FOR PROGRESSIVES IN THE UK?
As people begin to regroup after the election and consider what to do next, one message is coming over loud and clear: we can still achieve change at the local level. Inevitably much of this discussion has centred round the Labour Party and what it needs to do now, but a Labour majority in Parliament is not of course the only route to social change. Realistically what we now need is collaboration between progressive parties. A Labour revival must tap into the energy for change on the ground writes John Harris. ‘Labour from opposition cannot reindustrialise,’ writes MP Alex Sobel, ‘but Labour in its widest form – working alongside unions, Labour-run councils, local parties and the voluntary sector – can provide support that will in turn create resilience.’
‘To the greatest extent possible, parties and governments should trust communities to identify their own needs and make their own decisions,’ writes George Monbiot. ‘Labour needs to be at the heart of communities making real, concrete change long before the next election,’ writes Rebecca Long-Bailey.
‘Politics does not start and end in Westminster,’ wrote CLES’s Neil McInroy the day after the election. ‘Across the UK, communities are experimenting with real alternatives because they know that our political economy is fundamentally broken.’ The city of York has just announced plans to ban private car journeys from the city centre within three years in an effort to cut carbon emissions.
The last word goes to Jack Shenker, writing for openDemocracy. ‘Voters didn’t believe a better world was possible. So what now?’ he asks. ‘For me,’ he answers, ‘the way forward must involve Labour embedding itself at the very heart of communities — including learning from, and not dictating to, those self-organised movements that have already found ways to overcome the long-term, structural processes of social and economic atomisation and are forging new collective political identities as a result.’ Labour also needs to work with other progressive parties to reimagine the future and build a new narrative, to find new pressure points for change and join together in new configurations to build grassroots support.
‘Talking Points’ is collated by Caroline Hartnell, who convenes the Rethinking Poverty blog.
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