The Fabian Society was started in 1884 by what Caroline Benn describes as “middle class reformers with a conscience” who met to discuss what should be done about the poor. More than 200 years later the society still thrives.
Its latest initiative is a study of life chances and child poverty.(1) It is a blend of revealing statistics, telling analysis and relevant recommendations. The commissioners praise New Labour for reducing child poverty but add that one in five children are still poor. They show that inequality continues to undermine the life chances of many children. A vision is held out of a Britain more like Sweden, Denmark and Norway where a doctor, a hospital clerk and a cleaner may well live in the same neighbourhood and their children attend the same school.
To this end, the commissioners propose a list of improved benefits to be paid for by a higher rate of income tax on top earners which would also reduce inequality. Good stuff but they chicken out of setting a numerical target for equality. To do so might upset the over 300 highly paid MPs, MEPs, MSPs and peers who are Fabians. I am not so reluctant. The target should be that no person has an income more than three times that of another.
The Fabian report was soon followed by one from the Commission on Urban Life and Faith.(2) It is a follow-up to the Faith in the City report of 1985 whose criticisms of Thatcherism almost certainly lost Bishop David Sheppard promotion to Canterbury. The commissioners, drawn from various denominations and faiths, lack the academic expertise of the Fabian treatise but in some ways they go beyond it.
First, they have more passion. Faith workers include some of the few professionals who still live in deprived areas. They are angry about the plight of the poor and write: “The experience of the faithful on the ground is that the poor – if not getting quantifiably poorer – are the losers in a widening gulf between themselves and those growing more prosperous.”
The passion almost boils over when it comes to the way the government forces asylum seekers into poverty. I asked an asylum seeker friend, who has been in the UK for several years, when her family last had a holiday. Daft question. She explained that they hardly had enough for food. The commissioners rightly condemn the “draconian asylum system (which) consigns a small section of the population to unacceptable destitution.”
Second, they have boldness and are prepared to identify the root cause of poverty and inequality in the free market. They continue: “There is a deeper and still more troubling question about capitalism than simply outlining the ways in which it promotes inequality. It is time to question whether this model can really promote the happiness or well-being of all.” Third, they believe that the opponents of poverty and inequality must practise what they preach. For instance, the church must challenge its own rich members to take less.
The Fabian commissioners have a superb chapter on the need to change public opinion which holds poor people to blame for their poverty. They call for a narrative which shows that some good parents and hard workers are still poor. In other words, outside forces are the main cause of poverty.
This narrative would be told best by those at the hard end. It is time poor people had the chance to investigate the well off. They could identify the needless extravagance, the costly leisure pursuits, the drinking habits of those at the top. For their next exercise, perhaps the Fabians or the churches will finance this bottom-up report.
(1) Fabian Commission on Life Chances and Child Poverty, Narrowing the Gap, Fabian Books, 2006
(2) Commission on Urban Life and Faith, Faithful Cities, Church House Publishing and Methodist Publishing House, 2006