How poverty makes history

Beatrice Webb is our best guide, write Barry Knight and Mike Parker.

We found the answer to poverty a hundred years ago. It was set out by a woman who had the courage to stand against the political establishment. Her name? Beatrice Webb.

In her 1909 Minority Report to the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress, Webb set out what a good society free from poverty would look like. Her plan was based on the view that poverty was not due to a weakness of individual character, but was a problem of social structure and economic management. The state should take responsibility for planning society, she said. The poor should no longer be treated differently or be kept separate from other citizens; hence, workhouses should be abolished. She and her husband, Sidney, founded the New Statesman in 1913 partly to promote these ideas.

It took 30 years for her views to become accepted, but they formed the basis for Britain's welfare state, and as a result, in the 30 years following the Second World War, British society made good progress on poverty. Yet, over the past three decades, we seem to have lost our way. Under Conservative governments from 1979 to 1997, child poverty more than doubled. The last Labour government made the ambitious pledge to end child poverty by 2020, but failed to meet the target of halving it by 2010, despite making great advances in reducing pensioner poverty. In 2009, 22 per cent of our children were still being raised in households on less than 60 per cent of median income. Inequality, which fell under all previous Labour governments, increased under Blair and Brown.

The Webb Memorial Trust, established in 1944 to promote the intellectual legacy of the Webbs, has commissioned leading think tanks to look at how poverty has been tackled by governments since the war and what has worked in other countries, and to speculate how the Webbs would have approached poverty today. As part of this programme, we asked some of Britain's best-known commentators to propose what should be done to address the problem. A new book, A Minority View: What Beatrice Webb Would Say Now, presents their answers.

Much of what the contributors say is common sense. They suggest we need to ensure that there is a plentiful supply of jobs at a living wage, tax only those who can afford it, and pay people who cannot work. Others suggest it is important to tackle the structural factors that lead to a disproportionate number of disabled people, women and ethnic-minority groups being on low incomes.

There is little to cause raised eyebrows here. The surprise is how few of these basic proposals are being acted on. All political parties are obsessed with the idea of economic growth, though this often involves shedding jobs to drive up profits, and therefore fuels the rise in inequality that has been gathering pace over the past few decades. Is growth sensible? Most people need and want a decent job that pays enough to ensure they have a decent standard of living. As Keynes noted, if reasonably paid work were a feature of people's lives, most other social problems would disappear. It is not clear that the relentless pursuit of economic growth is the way to achieve this.

Over the next five years, the Webb Memorial Trust will undertake a detailed review of such questions. A Minority View is the first in a series
of publications that will develop a narrative of what a society without poverty would look like and how to achieve it.

We also want to revive the public and political debate about poverty. It seems extraordinary that, in the 21st century in Britain, arguably one of the world's most civilised societies, significant poverty still exists. As part of that debate, we hope to develop a wider discussion on the nature of poverty. What does poverty mean to our citizens and how can we engage more people in solving it?

“A Minority View: What Beatrice Webb Would Say Now", edited by Barry Knight, is published by the Alliance Publishing Trust.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right