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Lansley, S. (2021) The Richer, The Poorer – How Britain Enriched the Few and Failed the Poor A 200 Year History, Bristol, Policy Press.

You might think that someone who starts a book with a quote from singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen like, ‘The poor stay poor, the rich get rich. That’s how it goes, everybody knows’, would think twice about writing yet another text critiquing the problem of poverty – as though that’s going to change anything. But Stewart Lansley is perhaps a more complex commentator and this a more complex book than might initially be seen to be the case.

This is probably because the book is explicitly framed in terms of exploring both poverty and riches; those who are enriched as well as those who are impoverished by ruling ideologies, policies and politics. His choice of approach is perhaps also explained by another quotation at the beginning of the book, from the noted socialist historian, R.H. Tawney: ‘What thoughtful people call the problem of poverty, thoughtful poor people call with equal justice, a problem of riches.’

Lansley puts together more than 400 pages of closely-packed but readable and convincing argument and evidence about the UK’s worsening problems of poverty and inequality, but also says in the blog that accompanies the book

A post-pandemic society can take one of two paths. It can retain today’s value-sapping and high-inequality system. Or it can be steered in a wholly new direction, one built around a different set of social values aimed at finally breaking Britain’s high-inequality, high-poverty cycle. On current trends and policies, the odds are on the former ( ).

So Lansley doesn’t seem to have great faith in the power of the anti-poverty expert to bring about change. Yet the book seems to be part of the Peter Townsend tradition of assuming that piling on the facts about poverty leads to political change towards eradicating it. But Lansley also quotes people (including this author) who are dismissive of this kind of assumption, analysts like Barry Knight, the former director of the Webb Memorial Trust, who argues that ‘the facts don’t change things’. Given the ability of successive governments across major political parties to convince the general electorate of the large scale dishonesty of welfare benefits claimants when the evidence has almost invariably contradicted this, we should not be surprised. Poverty has long been a problem where it’s been easier to blame the victim than the perpetrator.

I believe there is an inherent ambivalence in this book which is its great value, since it offers us the evidence that change is needed but also raises questions about how that change is ever to be achieved. As with all the other great issues of our age; sexism, racism, disablism, heterosexism, ageism, and so on, what we have learned from New Social Movements is that this is only really likely to happen when people are able to speak and act for themselves; work out their own tactics, strategies, campaigns and ways forward.

That may not be where this book starts, but it’s evidence only encourages this conclusion – at least as far as this reader is concerned. That I believe may be its true value – as a bridge between the old, increasingly ineffective expert analysis of poverty and inequality – and the emerging participatory insights and understandings, now growing in scale and authority.

This book is a resource that can help us make up our own minds about extremes of wealth and poverty, privilege and want, instead of being encouraged to ‘other’ welfare claimants and kid ourselves we share the interests of the profiteering one per cent. We should arm ourselves with it in all our anti-poverty struggles.

More information about the book here