Taking part in a good society
I gave this talk to a Compass Scotland event on what a “good society” could or should look like in Scotland.
I was asked to say a few words on taking part in the good society. What do we mean by taking part? Being able to spend our time with each other in meaningful and enjoyable ways; joining with others at a community level; and participating in our democracy and having a genuine voice in that democracy.
I’d argue that there are three main barriers to taking part in the good society (putting aside for a second that the good society may not technically exist)
– Poverty and financial insecurity
– Social insecurity and counter-productive priorities that are thrown up by neo-liberal economics
– Democratic structures
But on the bright side, I think there are a huge number of things we can and should do to break down those barriers and I’ll touch on two of them – the citizens income and participatory budgeting.
So to go back to the first of our barriers, poverty is pervasive and cruel and it’s making a hell of a comeback of late.
– 1 in 4 children live in poverty, rising to almost half in some parts of Glasgow and surrounding areas and CPAG estimate that UK wide, an additional 600,000 children will be pushed into child poverty because of recent UK Government welfare changes and cuts by 2015
So that’s all awful, but what does it mean for taking part in society? Well if you’re living on £71 a week on Jobseekers Allowance you can probably just about afford to eat, pay for a wee bit of heating and if you’re lucky, a mobile phone. But going out for a drink with friends, going to see a film, getting a bus – even these most basic things are out of reach for huge swathes of our population. And it’s not just people whose only income is benefits who suffer. Many of the half a million people UK wide who are now reliant on food banks are in work – they are the low paid, reliant on tax credits to fill the gap between the minimum wage and a living wage.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s most recent report found that participation decreases as incomes get lower, but for the 30% of people on the lowest incomes, an increase in income makes little difference to the choices they were already making between essential goods and activities.
I’d also argue that to take the step to be involved in a community group or to vote in an election, you have to feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself and that you have a stake in it. Yet recent research has shown that society at large views people on the lowest incomes as “less than fully human” – as something other to be feared and ostracized. And if society views you as beneath them, how likely are you going to be to join in?
Even for those who are not in poverty financial insecurity and the failures of the neo-liberal economic model have led to social insecurity. As a society we may be asset rich but we are increasingly time poor – working longer hours for less money in real terms, only so we can spend less time with the people we care about, do less of the stuff we love and spend money we don’t have accumulating more stuff we don’t need, all the while wondering why we feel so unfulfilled in life! Consumerism means that we are consumers first and citizens second; that the tools at our disposal to exercise any agency over our lives are those of switching energy companies or shopping in a different supermarket. It is utterly meaningless.
At a political level, voter turn-out can be as low as 30% and membership of political parties is still declining. I’d argue this is largely because power is simply too far from the people. If your only say in how decisions are made on is at an election where the person you vote for may get in and may stick to their plans if they’re lucky enough to be in power – then it’s no wonder the majority don’t bother getting involved!
So – how could we fix any of this? Well from a Green perspective, there are some fantastic ideas that could make a real difference.
At the heart of green social policies is the citizens income which is an idea that’s as old as the hills and is about as universalist as you can get. In short it means that everyone is guaranteed a basic level of income below which you cannot fall. Citizens’ income means no stigma of means testing and we’d lift people out of poverty in an instant. There’s more than enough money to pay for it but making it happen is a question of political will, which I feel may never happen while we’re governed by the same old political establishment in Westminster.
Greens also believe in participative democracy, one part of which is participatory budgeting. One example already up and running in Scotland is £eith Decides, where the community in Leith in Edinburgh is given a pot of cash by the council which they can spend on local community projects. This year 900 people took part and for many it was the first time they’d ever done anything in their own community. More than 80% of them said it was a good or excellent way of allocating public resources and the feedback from local people and groups was phenomenal.
So there are some solutions – some easier to roll out now, some may take a little longer. Perhaps these two ideas can start some debate on how we take our nation on the journey to being a good society. But regardless, as JK Galbraith said, “there are many different visions of the good society; the treadmill is not one of them”.