Friday, 16 November 2012

Empowering The Poor and Tackling Poverty at the Local Level

In 1909, the Liberal Party Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George delivered his People's Budget. During his delivery he stated that;
"I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests.”

One hundred and three years on from the People's Budget how close are we to seeing David Lloyd George’s "good time" when poverty will be remote to this country? Well in the previous century, Britain has developed a strong welfare state, built a National Health Service (NHS) and established progressive taxation, much on the foundations laid by Lloyd George. However despite these progressive achievements poverty still remains in 21st century Britain.

The United Kingdom is currently going through a period of harsh austerity measures. The nature or austerity means that it will naturally impact on the poorest and most vulnerable, especially when cuts are made to the welfare budget and to social services. The charity, Save the Children in its first ever UK appeal says that too many children in Britain today from poor families "are going without hot meals, new shoes and winter clothes" (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/sep/05/save-the-children-uk-campaign).

For most of the last few decades the poorest people in Britain have been suffering. This was long before the latest period of austerity. During this time Britain has seen both Conservative and Labour governments come in and out of power. Take my hometown of Blackpool in the mid-2000s for example, I had many school friends whose parents struggled with food bills and struggled to feed themselves and their children properly. Added to this, many of their parents couldn't afford new clothes and often had to put up with damaged and worn out shoes. Food and clothing are the very basics in life, and yet in the mid-2000s during what Labour would have you believe was an age of plenty, the poorest in our country still struggled to afford them. Many poor working class areas, most of which vote Labour have in many cases been abandoned by the tradition party of the working class.

In-order to tackle poverty we need a multi-pronged approach. An approach that includes a redistributive welfare state, free healthcare, a good education, tackling personal debt, tacking addiction and community engagement and local empowerment. I shall focus mostly on the last one of these prongs, community engagement and local empowerment.

It is time for a truly localist route to tackling poverty. We must tackle poverty at its local grassroots. Firstly we need local authorities to be actively engaging with their poorest communities. This should include establishing community leaders that can work alongside the local council, local councillors, police officers, social workers, trade unions and local charities. This should establish an active and positive dialogue between communities and local authorities and charities. This community engagement should be used to recognise what the social issues are that prevent poverty from reducing. The community and local authorities should cooperate in addressing the social issues.

Secondly, their needs to be an efficient targeting of resources at a local and community level. National government should devolve funding and recourses to local government specifically for tacking local poverty. Local councils should be able to target this funding at the poorest areas where it would be most effective at eradicating poverty. The funding should be directed according to what problems need to be tackled to reduce poverty and increase opportunity. This funding could be directly redistributed to the poor, used to improve underperforming schools, used to tackle alcohol and drug addiction or used to renovate poor areas and communities.

Thirdly we must ensure the poor have an effective democratic voice. Having the vote and actually feeling part of the democratic process are two different things entirely. What is needed in order to give the poor an effective democratic voice is community politics. Community politics is the doctrine of empowering individuals within their communities. It is an ideology of “social transformation” (The Theory & Practice of Community Politics: http://www.cix.co.uk/~rosenstiel/aldc/commpol.htm).

Community politics is a doctrine that is most practiced by the Liberal Democrats. It involves active local politicians engaging with communities to determine what local issues are affecting those communities. Local politicians and local people then campaign together by delivering leaflets, lobbying the local authorities and by organising local petitions. The hope being to achieve the enactment of the policy being campaigned upon.  Examples of community politics may include the need to have a new playground built, to prevent the closure of a youth centre or to protect local hospital services.

Community politics should form the liberal and democratic foundations of any attempt to tackle poverty as well as any attempt to empower and engage with poorer communities. In short, community politics should be perused to give our poorest communities a genuine stake in the democratic process. We must not only strive to tackle inequalities of rights, wealth and opportunities, but we must also tackle inequalities in power between the rich and poor as well.

To tackle poverty in the 21st Century, we must empower people especially the poor. We must ensure that society has a social minimum below which no one is allowed to fall. Rights, wealth, opportunity and power must be openly available to everyone. It has been 103 years, since Lloyd George’s budget and poverty is still not “remote to the people of this country”, far from it. But if we are to tackle poverty we must not just redistribute wealth through an active welfare state, but actively seek to engage with, direct resources to and democratically empower our poorest people at the local level.

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