Address of Baroness Ruth Lister, Chair of the SPA, to our annual conference held at The University of Durham, July 2017.
Four weeks prior to the Social Policy Association’s 50th anniversary AGM an unknown number of people – at least 80 – lost their lives and many more their homes in the horrendous fire which swept through Grenfell Tower. The causes can be traced back to the actions and non-actions of people with power over the lives of the powerless.
Photos show how the burnt out hulk of Grenfell Tower overshadows the lives of local residents like a terrible spectre. It also, quite rightly, overshadows public life in the UK. What has been striking is how, across the political spectrum, it has been recognised as ‘a metaphor for inequality in Britain’, quoting Conservative commentator, Fraser Nelson. Likewise, the Financial Times observed that ‘the tower’s blackened silhouette, looming above London’s most affluent enclaves, is rapidly becoming a symbol of the divisions in British society. The tragedy is fuelling resentment over inequality and the impact of austerity on the poorest’. Even callers to the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 used the language of social class to make sense of what had happened.
As Nelson concluded, ‘this calamity cannot help but raise fundamental questions about our society, our politicians and the way those at the bottom are treated. And about why, when residents repeatedly raised their concerns, no one seemed to listen’. A local resident told a Guardian reporter ‘They don’t care about us, they don’t listen to us’. ‘It was not just that they ignored us, but that they viewed us with contempt’ an organiser of Justice4Grenfell explained to the Financial Times.
So not just a metaphor for the material facts of inequality, but also for the misrecognition of and contempt for social tenants, people in poverty, migrants and other marginalised groups who bear the brunt of inequalities – of power as well as income and wealth. For those who ran Kensington and Chelsea in their own image, they were the ‘other’. But at the very least the more powerful, in central as well as local government, are now having to listen to the often very angry voices of those others who were previously ignored and disrespected – although initially they hid away, refusing to speak to those affected, thereby compounding their original disregard for their lives and views. In contrast, local people themselves came together to support each other and to fight for justice.
As well as these deep-rooted inequalities, which in many ways feel so much worse than 50 years ago, questions are being raised about, for instance, housing policy, local government, the effects of austerity and of the systematic destruction of safety regulations in the name of cutting so-called red tape. None of the lessons that are being voiced – and let us hope learned – will be new to SPA members. The research of many can throw light on the issues thrown up. Nor, I suspect, are such lessons unique to the UK, even if they are perhaps more stark here – together with the US. Indeed, comparisons have been made with Hurricane Katrina.
It’s depressing that in overall socio-economic terms we’re a much more unequal society today than when the SPA was founded. More positively, from the perspective of inequalities – of gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability – we have come a long way, though, of course, still have a long way to go. In some ways, it’s difficult to read the politics of inequality in the UK today and to assess the likely long-term impact of Grenfell Tower. On the one hand, it often feels as if the current high level of inequality has been normalised. Survey after survey shows the majority dislike such a large gap between rich and poor but have rather less enthusiasm for government action to tackle it. And because it was as long ago as the 1980s when income inequality widened to a chasm, there’s sometimes a sense that this is an inevitable part of modern life. There’s some statistical dispute as to whether inequality has been rising again recently. But either way, we don’t have to show it’s increasing to make the case for action when it’s so unacceptably high anyway. Moreover, absolute differences between highest and lowest incomes have been increasing Europe-wide and wealth inequality, which is almost twice as high as household income inequality, has risen recently in Britain.
On the other hand, many have interpreted support for both right and left wing populism as, in part, an angry reaction among those who feel marginalised by inequality. Welcoming the unexpected level of support for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK election, Bernie Sanders commented that ‘all over the world people are rising up against austerity and massive levels of income and wealth inequality’. Certainly, the challenge to inequality in the Labour manifesto (for all the weaknesses in its prescriptions to tackle it) seemed to strike a chord with many.
We live in uncertain political times, the more so because of Brexit, and social policy analysts and researchers have an important role to play in making sense of the social and economic context. Yet the very volatility of politics opens up opportunities for resistance. Rebecca Solnit, writing in the Guardian on the theme of hope and the importance of memory offers some wise words for a 50th anniversary. She quotes the theologian Walter Brueggemann: ‘memory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair’. Solnit points out that one reason that amnesia produces despair is because ‘the status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view’. The status quo on inequality offers a prime example. In contrast, she holds up a memory of the past that conjures up neither unmitigated awfulness nor a golden age but gives due regard to its complexity. Such a memory, she writes, ‘that includes our power, produces that forward-directed energy called hope’. Whether we are researching, critiquing or doing social policy, and however regressive mainstream social policy might be, we will all be the stronger if our work is infused with that ‘forward-directing energy called hope’.
Ruth Lister is Honorary President of the Social Policy Association. She’s a member of the House of Lords and Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Loughborough University. Click here to learn more about her scholarly work.