Photo: They Cut We Bleed from Ron F. Flickr Photostream

All the evidence suggests that current social policy is failing miserably. It is increasing poverty and inequality, undermining social cohesion and personal relations, spreading insecurity and damaging and stigmatising some of the most marginalised groups in society, like disabled people and mental health service users. Yet we also seem to be facing an impasse in doing anything about it. Divisive politics, the populist appeal of ‘welfare reform’, and appeals to the ‘aspirational’, still appear to play strongest with the electorate.

The Brexit vote should make us all pause about the state of our democracy and the chances of holding on to all we hold most dear. Twenty-first century Britain seems to have made turkeys of us all by convincing enough people that by voting for Christmas they will keep foreign turkeys out. How do we overcome this impasse so that institutions we need and love, from social services, National Health Service and our university system, to the schools our children need and the libraries and public spaces that bring joy and meaning to our lives, are not whittled away and lost forever?

It will certainly not be by offering more moral imprecations that ‘we’ should do this or do that, as many progressive commentators continue to do, apparently without recognising that this is making little or no difference to public attitudes or government policies. Current policymakers and spin doctors have gained great skill in alienating people from such top-down prescriptions, framing them as the self-interested projects of groups they readily dismiss as ‘urban’ and ‘metropolitan elites’ and the ‘chattering classes’. This raises questions about how effective campaigns like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s recent ‘We can solve poverty in the UK’ are, however, worthy they may be. Who are ‘we’ and what does this actually mean at a time of increasing welfare state cuts? There are echoes here of the ambitious and hopelessly naïve slogan of the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign.

If the aim is to safeguard and renew the welfare state, then it looks as though a very different approach is now needed – bottom-up, rather than top-down. Judging from recent voting behaviour, free market profiteers are much more likely to carry conviction with disadvantaged members of the electorate than statist patricians. What we now seem to have are the politics of disempowerment and exclusion, with an ever-narrowing range of people dominating our politics and society. Yet the more people are disempowered, the more powerful and effective reactionary attacks on benefit claimants, immigrants and refugees seem to be.

The only way this is likely to be challenged is through a politics of involvement and empowerment, where people can begin to feel valued, listened to and part of things – unlike apparently so many Brexit voters. It’s not just that we need more participatory social policy geared to releasing people’s potential rather than compensating for their perceived shortcomings. We need more participatory models of change to achieve it. This must be the goal, rather than a new set of expert prescriptions for policy. It really does mean building from the bottom, building trust broadly, renewing confidence and challenging the fear and suspicion that rising insecurity and uncertainty generates in society.

Networks of user-led and community organisation are already demonstrating the skills they have and the part that they can play in helping this to happen. What’s needed is much more comprehensive support for this new generation of third sector organisations, where service providers and beneficiaries closely overlap. As such support is unlikely to come from government, changed roles may be required for think tanks, big charity, trades unions and research funders, beyond advancing their traditional agendas, or connecting with government and political parties as advisers and service providers.

They could have a vital part to play in offering greater support to small grassroots organisations. Perhaps even giving a tithe of their own income, enhancing the latter’s infrastructure and increasing their visibility; helping local people to work out their own interests for themselves and understand social policy better This way they can play a more active part in taking their own collective action. We have already seen the Big Lottery Fund take on such a role with its community-based programmes ().

We should remember that if our formal politics sometimes feel like they are stuck in the 1930s, the politics of the personal and day to day, have been changed from the bottom. All the great changes in modern society; recognition of the rights of women, of LGBTQ people and of black and minority ethnic groups have come from grassroots movements. Only when people have a real sense of ownership of welfare are they likely to understand and support it and reject the increasingly sophisticated populist attacks it now faces.


This is an extract from Peter Beresford OBE, Professor of Citizen Participation, University of Essex Inaugural Lecture, University of Essex, October 2016, entitled  “A beginner’s guide to saving the NHS, our human rights and everything”. For a broader treatise on issues touched upon here, see Peter Beresford, (2016), All Our Welfare: Towards Participatory Social Policy, Bristol, Policy Press.