Opinion

This election, we must demand social security be rocket-fuelled so it becomes social opportunity

We must demand that all things possible are done to repair our troubled society, writes John Bird

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New strategies around escaping poverty need to be created. This is our chance to call loudly for them. Image: Shutterstock

Elections are like islands of hope in a sea of troubles. They seem to increase hope when deep despair is at hand. Last week, while doing a Q&A in Falmouth after the showing of the film Someone’s Daughter, Someone’s Son, I was asked whether I hoped for much in the forthcoming general election.  

I was not appointed in life to urinate on people’s parades. Nor was I appointed – or self-appointed – to be gooey-eyed over political promises. Rather, to be firmly sensible and not misled by what turns out to be
electoral bluster.  

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So it’s a hard one when, having stacked up so many empty promises, the government finally surrenders to the inevitable and calls a general election. And suddenly everything is about promises and hope and political bunting, with manifestos not admitting one squeak of a chance that the promises won’t be
realised if office falls into their lap.  

No, poverty won’t go away. No, the health service won’t heal itself. No, prosperity won’t be gloriously distributed throughout all constituencies irrespective of where you are geographically.  

But we must demand that all things possible are done to repair our troubled society. We must ask for promises even if we know they might not be delivered. Because we have to have a gauge by which to measure achievement.  

But unless government and governance themselves are untangled and given new form, then whatever result comes through on general election day will not result in the changes and improvements we demand and require.  

If the next Treasury remains remarkably similar in shape to the current one then it will not spend good prevention money but will wait until the problems have grown to a point where emergency repairs are required. As I said last week, not repairing the roof means waiting until the roof almost collapses. That is, if the next administration carries on with the policy of all Treasuries since time immemorial – of not ‘spending to save’.  

If poverty is not made a central concern but is allowed to carry on distorting the budgets of all our major ministries – health, education, justice, work – then we won’t witness the promises being kept and affording us a new prosperous reality.  

Yes, my advocacy of a Ministry of Poverty Prevention – MOPP – is my own noisy call. A centralised government department that will gradually relieve ministries of the burdensome need to spend fortunes on coping with the effects of poverty on their budgets. Imagine a health service that doesn’t have to spend half of its budget on people suffering from food poverty, so that their illnesses are not created or exaggerated by food poverty. Because if MOPP is created it will be busily mopping up the mess left by poverty and need.  

But promises are coming our way, and unless they are firmly entrenched in the possible they will wilt in the harsh winds of reality.  

Yet it is also essential that cynicism is not allowed to flourish. Scepticism perhaps, asking where the money is coming from, and where the thinking is that will turn a promise into a reality. The thinking is as important as the money. If government doesn’t think new thoughts then the money will be wasted.  

I always come back to the problem of inherited poverty: if that’s what you get from your parents then you are definitely coming from behind. You will struggle and be distorted and hurt and reduced by that monumental piece of misfortune. Some will escape and even hang around to tell us that poverty made them, that everyone should follow their example. From rags to riches, from Cinderella-ing in the kitchen of life to winning Prince Charming. Thousands, if not millions, have escaped poverty. But that should not lead us to believe that everyone is going to escape poverty through their own devices. That is why we need to create poverty exit strategies around social security and education, and around social housing.  

That is why the reform of budgets for social transformation need to be carefully targeted at the early years, so that just because mum and dad do not have the savings and the social profile of a Boris Johnson, it doesn’t stamp on them and limit their life. Just imagine Johnson stripped of his inheritance and born in dire need: how far would he venture out into the world if he was coming from behind? If anything needs doing it must be the reinvention of the welfare state so that it targets these inherited deficits. A welfare state that doesn’t park people up for life. Warehousing them in a piddling form of benefit. Social security has to be rocket-fuelled so that it becomes social opportunity. Alas, much social security has been little more than enabling people to tread water and not a down payment on moving up and out and away from poverty.  

Big Issue is demanding an end to poverty this general election. Will you sign our open letter to party leaders?

The care of strangers and the welfare state have to become more of what welfare was intended to be – a bedrock, a foundation stone for a better life than mean circumstances and beginnings would usually allow. Or, as the large poster that I gave Peter Mandelson back in the days of the Blair administration said, ‘You have to fare well on welfare in order to say farewell to welfare.’ To which one should add that welfare has to be seen as a right that is worthy of its name: well-fare. 

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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