John Bird: A future without poverty

We have to take on the whole responsibility for tomorrow and re-engineer it before it happens

The tragedy of the killing of Paul Kelly knocks all your endeavours, and brings into question your own sense of humanity. Paul, a Big Issue vendor selling in Glasgow, will be sorely missed as the outpouring of grief that followed his untimely, and cruel, death showed. Paul was what was so great and fun about our work – that he engaged with people, touched them, improved their day, helped them as he worked selling The Big Issue to help himself.

Don’t be mistaken, Big Issue vendors like Paul do touch the very soul and heart of countless people, hundreds and hundreds, as they go about their business of earning their way in life. And as the cries of pain and shame at Paul’s end show he was special, inspiring and working towards a better end than the one awarded him, alas.

The week began with this tragedy rocking us all. The week proceeded with us working at Parliament preparing for something we would have loved Paul to witness: and that is a complete reinvention of politics, with radical rebudgeting for poverty, and a struggle against the causes of poverty at the very heart of things.

On Thursday last week as we reflected on what had happened so tragically to one of our best vendors and friends in Glasgow we launched our campaign for a Future Generations Act to be enacted in the UK. We started this with a debate in the House of Lords which was carried on by 17 of our number, peers who want to see the world of the future differently.

Where arbitrariness is removed from law-making. Where future generations would be prioritised, and their needs, by avoiding making laws that had unintended consequences.

That is quite a challenge for anyone to even think about. But in Wales, as has been shown with the Welsh Future Generations Commissioner Sophie Howe, we need the future to be different from our pasts. We cannot simply have tomorrow repeating the mistakes, the uglinesses, the injustice, the climatic destruction that we live with today.

In other words make tomorrow more likely to help and aid and sustain and improve the lives of people so that the Paul Kellys don’t become victims of the vicious conditions that surround those struggling from poverty.

What this Future Generation game is all about is almost a growing up of politics. A recognition that actually we are in some way half-formed with regard to the political arena; as is demonstrated by the Brexit crisis and the subsequent crisis thrown up by the leadership struggle. It’s almost as though we are still struggling with how we do our politics. Do we leave it to ambitious people who it appears put their own ambition above those of the rest of us? Or do we actually start putting together a cogent future politics that grows us and supports us and those among us who come from struggling times?

DID YOU KNOW…

Our vendors buy every copy of the magazine from us for £1.25 and sell it on to you for £2.50. Which is why we ask you to ALWAYS take your copy of the magazine. We believe in trade not aid.

Sophie Howe’s Future Generations Commissioner looks beyond today and all of its restrictions towards a complete and well-rounded imagined world, and then lays the practical bricks and stones necessary to make that happen.

Our discussion in the House of Lords is the beginning of laying the ground for a bill before Parliament that takes the common-sensical Welsh Future Generations achievement and tries to make it law; as it is in Wales.

We cannot simply have tomorrow repeating the mistakes, the uglinesses, the injustice, the climatic destruction that we live among today

Is it possible that we could at last have budgeting for change and improvement, planning and the careful use of our resources that does not destroy the environment but improves it; does not commit people to eternal poverty but alleviates it; does not cast people into the future with inadequate housing, inadequate education and inadequate opportunity to improve their lives and the lives of their children?

It all smacks of Utopia it seems, as one dissenting voice echoed in the chamber; a peer who believed that commissioners are like dictators and one would be controlled by those who imposed their ideas on the future. I am not sure where this particular peer has lived most of his life, but commissioners have done sterling work, though I am sure there are some who have failed.

As the former printer for The Victorian Society, back in the 1970s, I took a particular interest in what I printed. And paid particular interest to the history of the summer of 1858 when the ‘Great Stink’ overran Parliament itself, causing illness and death among Londoners. It was not dissimilar to the air quality crisis of today. But it seemed it was impossible to get all of the big players, as well as the little ones, working to solve the problem. To agree to a complete reworking and rebuilding of London’s sewers. Out of the Big Stink and its vile smells came the vast new Commission of Public Works that laid the new sewers and imposed order and development and sanity on sewage.

It is a terrible reality that our children are out striking from school because they grasp the ugly reality that we are in the middle of an enormous climatic crisis. But unlike in the good old days of the Big Stink we can’t just build some sewers: we have to take on the whole responsibility for tomorrow and re-engineer it before it happens.

And that means, as in 1858, a commissioner like in Wales that will not dilly dally and waste precious time, of which we have precious little, to sort out tomorrow today.

It was tragic that Paul Kelly did not survive to see this journey we are going on. But his death and its circumstances must and should and will drive us on.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief  of The Big Issue.