Ryan Shorthouse is the Founder and Director of Bright Blue
Conservatives have an uncomfortable relationship with the future. Some just yearn for yesteryear. The more thoughtful are wary of grand plans to change the world, since they often neglect the wisdom in human experience and trample on individual freedom for the sake of a higher goal. As Lord Hailsham once wrote: “Of catchwords, slogans, visions, ideal states of society, new orders, the tinsel and finery of the modern political charlatan, the Conservative would rather die than sell such trash”.
Clearly, then, a vision of a future without poverty is going to be a difficult sell to conservatives. But modern conservatism – though having a number of intellectual influences – does have certain core values that can be drawn upon to offer ways of reducing poverty in today’s society. As Karl Popper advises, the focus should not be on forging a future utopia, but taking practical steps here and now to reduce human misery.
Conservatives passionately believe in three relevant principles. First, in maximising individual liberty and agency, so more people become – as Michael Gove says – “authors of their own life story”. Second, that rewards in life should be more closely aligned to the contribution that a person has made. Third, that true value in life comes from looking out from the self and being respectful of, and responsible for, others. As such, the civic institutions that enable this – from the Church to the family – should be nurtured.
The assumption is that increasing individual freedom unlocks human ingenuity and encourages responsibility, both essential to fighting poverty. Now, of course people have circumstances that make them more likely to face impoverishment – such as a poor upbringing or living in an area where jobs are scarce. Conservatives are not insensitive to these challenges, and want policies to address them. But they emphasise a greater role of individual effort in overcoming poverty. This is an optimistic and progressive worldview: that, if given the right tools, people can better their circumstances.
The most important tool is education. The link between poor educational attainment and poor labour market outcomes in Britain is particularly acute. Education really is the passport to mainstream society: it provides the skills to find and keep and job, to build and look after a family.
The key is to start early. The brain is most malleable in infancy. And since skill formation is complementary, strong foundations are critical. Supporting parents to create an enriching home learning environment and building a high-quality pre-school education system should be priorities. Children should not progress through the school system, and certainly not leave it, without mastering the fundamentals at each stage, even if that means normalising mixed-age classrooms.
Individual agency is important but insufficient in tackling poverty. Many people are unlucky and find their circumstances deteriorate through no fault of their own – for example, through the loss of a job or partner. Nearly one in three of us, in fact, are likely to fall into poverty every eight years.
A robust safety net is needed for everyone who falls on more difficult times, particularly as an overwhelmingly majority have contributed in some way – working or caring – to our society. But for those who have worked for a long number of years, the amount of support they receive in tough times through the welfare system is unsatisfactory. Those with long work records should get more financial support through both the Universal Credit and Parental Leave system.
Despite contributing enormously to Britain, millions of people fall beneath the official poverty line despite being paid. Indeed, a majority of households in poverty now have at least one person working in it. The very lowest paid deserve a pay rise. It is welcome that a cross-party consensus is developing on increasing the minimum wage significantly but sensibly, and for the Living Wage to be adopted by more companies.
Conservatives evidently do see a role for the state in supporting people. Nevertheless, especially considering the fiscal constrains, there are limits to what it can achieve, just as there are limits to what individual effort can accomplish. We need a partnership approach to reducing poverty, involving the state, individuals, businesses, the wider family and civil society.
So we might enable families to better support one another by extending parental leave to grandparents or by incentivising savings so that different generations of families support one another. Equally, we need to build universal institutions – where people from different backgrounds come together and forge meaningful relationships – to reduce social exclusion, a modern-day ‘giant evil’ to add to Sir William Beveridge’s list.
In short, this is what the Prime Minister called the ‘Big Society’. Reducing poverty is not just the responsibility of the state or the individual; it is the responsibility of us all.
This is a version of an essay from A Future without Poverty, a series of articles published today by Bright Blue and the Fabian Society.