The society we want

A new study shows that people feel a big disconnect between the society they have and the society they want.

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We are stuck when it comes to poverty. Every month a new report describes another aspect of the problem, yet there is little progress towards solutions.  A whole industry of academics, think tanks, churches and charities suggest poverty is getting worse. Yet, there is no evidence that anyone pays attention to what they say – partly because persistent repetition of bad news means that people turn off from the problem, thinking that ‘this is too big for me to deal with’.

At the same time, the debate has become ‘angry and fruitless’ polarised between those who believe that the answer lies in people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and those who believe that government needs to intervene to raise people’s incomes. The result, according to Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is ‘there is no shared understanding or perspective on poverty, its causes or its solutions.’  It is no wonder that we are stuck.

A new study by the Webb Memorial Trust, The society we want, suggests a different starting point.  Rather than beginning with the problem, we should identify the solution we want and put our efforts into obtaining it. Derived from the perspective of Beatrice Webb, who saw that poverty results from processes of economic management and social structure, the key question is what kind of society do we want?

From the research conducted by the Webb Memorial Trust, it is clear that what people want is very different from what politicians talk about.  In a survey of 10,000 adults, the qualities that people most treasured were social ones such as fairness, security, safety, freedom, compassion and tolerance.  Economic indicators mattered far less.  From a list of 17 key components of a good society identified in pilot research, the highest economic indicator, ‘well paid work’, was ranked sixth, while ‘prosperity’ came twelfth. In focus groups, it was clear that what people stressed was the importance of relationships in society, rather than wealth, money and power.  People want enough to live on and to have a few luxuries but money is not what makes them happy.

The debate has become ‘angry and fruitless’ polarised between those who believe that the answer lies in people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and those who believe that government needs to intervene to raise people’s incomes.

Poverty is an enemy of a good society. Almost everyone agrees that government should intervene. What divides people is whether state help should extend beyond subsistence level. Children living in poor areas, however, were clear about what they needed and wrote a manifesto called Poverty ends now. This sets out six principles: a minimum standard of living, an equal school experience for all, affordable decent homes for everyone, access to three healthy meals a day, a feeling of safety at home and in communities, and affordable transport.

The study shows that people feel a big disconnect between the society they have and the society they want. This breeds a sense of powerlessness and a frustration with politicians who seem incapable of developing a narrative of a good society that meets their needs.

The results suggest that we need new perspective, energy and agency if we are to make progress. So, where is positive change going to come from? How can we think about the roles of civil society, business and government in addressing poverty creatively while being mindful of the background realities and finances that constrain what can be done? These are key questions that the Trust will address in the next stage of its work.

The society we want is available to download via www.webbmemorialtrust.org.uk

Barry Knight is Principal Adviser to the Webb Memorial Trust.