Opinion

Paul McNamee: Beyond Westminster let grassroots grow

The truth is that the growing mess is not going to be cleared up by government

Man in Portobello Road reading a poster on a shop grid describing the wealth divide in London, ironic as parts of Portobello Road a relatively poor and are very close to Notting Hill which is the exact opposite

He’s still out there, listening. He’s going all around the country, quietly showing up and asking the people of Britain to speak and to have their voice heard.

Philip Alston is the United Nations’ special investigator on poverty. He’s on a two-week tour taking in some of the poverty hotspots across all the home nations. It’s not exactly a TripAdvisor jaunt.

It is remarkable and shameful that the United Nations has looked at this country and decided that rising levels of poverty merit deeper investigation. The fifth richest economy in the world.

“I think the UK is at a crossroads, partly because of Brexit and partly because of the comments made by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor in terms of austerity [being over],” said Alston. “My hope is that there is a real possibility for a dialogue about future policy direction.”

Alston is set to file an interim report on his findings any day. A much fuller report will follow later.

What is especially galling is that while this is happening out there in the real world, among foodbanks and growing problems caused by Universal Credit rollout and in the midst of climbing child poverty levels and an uncompromising squeeze on local government funding that is hollowing out communities, the elected representatives are jockeying for jobs, not speaking for those without.

It doesn’t matter how many MPs claim to be listening to the voice of Britain: the evidence to the contrary is striking. The ludicrous situation of grown men and women debating publicly whether they should send a letter to a shadowy committee, thereby skewering their leader and throwing the government and the country into crisis, should be roundly mocked.

It’s a vacuous by-product of a weird age – something public school playing real life about it.

And all the while it’s an Australian lawyer representing an international body who is actually listening and paying attention.

It’s unclear who will be in charge to receive the report or indeed if they’ll do anything about it. Before she resigned last week Esther McVey was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, responsible for Universal Credit rollout. Not so long ago she dismissed real and provable evidence about the problems caused by Universal Credit as Fake News. Perhaps the new brooms coming in will prove more open and capable.

It doesn’t matter how many MPs claim to be listening to the voice of Britain: the evidence to the contrary is striking

The truth is that the growing mess is not going to be cleared up by government. I hope that while Alston is out there he doesn’t just uncover the problems but meets some incredible people on the ground who are digging in and trying to make things work. Because there are a lot of them. You may be one.

Later this week The Big Issue founder John Bird will lead a Big Issue conference, the first of its kind, to bring together local organisations who are, he says, working together, trading, sharing ideas to “stitch together”  local communities and building for the future.

It’s the first such conference, but it is timely and it is a key and vital way forward. Bringing together the grassroots to grow for the future.

The future is not going to be built by men and women holding press conferences explaining why they’re writing letters to their closed circle.

It’s going to come from everybody on the outside of that circle battling as one.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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