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Comment: Politicians should connect with voters, not their stereotypes

4th March 2013

ResPublica's Managing Director Caroline Macfarland writes for Politics

In reviewing the last few days’ barrage of opinion on how David Cameron should be connecting with the voters, the main point of contention between commentators could be summarised as ‘representing the interests of blue-collar C(c)onservatives’ versus ‘acting out of fairness for the common good’. Such a dispute seems to be arbitrary political positioning of these objectives as mutually exclusive, whereas the recurring question is really this: how can Westminster policy makers – the PM and others – do both?

The debate reminded me of the similarly arbitrary diatribe around the now common ‘strivers and shirkers’ rhetoric, which served to categorise those living on the breadline as either hard-working poor or benefits scroungers. Current policy making all too often gets waylaid in polarised analyses that either condemn cultures of dependency, or denounce the demonisation of poor communities.

In reality, it is not just a case of ‘striving’ or ‘shirking’ in the individualistic sense. People draw upon available resources and networks in their local communities, and have a relative perspective of poverty and aspiration based on these.

We need to expose the underlying contradictions inherent in current approaches to poverty, welfare and work. For example, although the government has brought in a raft of measures to address unemployment, the recent public accounts select committee report highlighted the work programme’s lack of innovation and flexibility needed to target those most vulnerable and excluded from the employment market. Conventional, nationally imposed jobseeking requirements prioritise narrow and limited conceptions of skills training – resulting in the controversy over ‘workfare’ that has been channelled all the way up to the high courts. And the picture is far more complex than just a question of unemployment; those in work also face increasing hardship in making ends meet.

A new report from ResPublica, Responsible Recovery: A social contract for local growth, calls for a more joined up, holistic approach to tackling poverty and unemployment which sees people themselves not as ‘shirkers’ but as untapped assets. The report advocates devolved and participatory approaches to welfare spending, handing power to local community intermediaries who have a significant part to play in driving forward formal and informal local economies, to revitalise the fabric of the welfare system itself.

Real solutions that work for local communities means bringing the labour market as close to those communities as possible – creating the ‘demand side’, as it were. Drawing on the increasing local provision of public services, the report calls for a radical localisation of the work programme, and other training and skills provision. We propose that benefit claimants could be paid to do short term, intermediate local work placements without affecting their benefits, if these improve skills and welfare security in the long run as well as benefiting the wellbeing of the wider community. We also encourage a fresh look at informal, undeclared work, and how it can be put on a more formal footing without penalising the skill and entrepreneurship that exists within poor communities.

We need a new approach which, instead of pitting ordinary people against each other, cultivates a ‘social contract’ whereby neighbourhoods are enabled to look after themselves and have a greater reciprocal stake in their own welfare. Instead of all the political jostling that serves to divide opinion, national and local policy makers should seek to build responsiveness into public discourse around helping people to ‘get on in life’, by allowing space for local initiatives and encouraging communities to lead by example.

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