The rain was pouring down as I made my way down the Strand, on my way to the first of a series of events to mark 50 years of the Child Poverty Action Group. I was pleased, however, to find a brighter time upon arrival at King’s College London. The participants gathering for the witness seminar were many of the same people who wrote the reports and memos I’ve been wading through at the LSE library for the past few months, but I hadn’t yet met any of them.
In the past there have twice been witness seminars – events where those involved gather to share their memories – on the history of CPAG. The first was a discussion of the founding of the pressure group in 1965, ready to convince the new Wilson government that poverty under the welfare state was real, was not restricted to the aged and the disabled, and required government action. The second focused on the 1970 election, where Labour’s surprise defeat ensured great deal of criticism for CPAG’s ‘poor get poorer under Labour’ campaign.
This third witness seminar was held on 6 January 2015 and looked ahead to the 1970s and 1980s. Frank Field, Director for a decade until his election to parliament for Labour in 1979, was unfortunately unable to attend. But there was a wonderful insightful panel nonetheless. In the image above (left to right) these were: John Ward of the Islington branch; Adrian Sinfield, poverty researcher and active member in Essex; 1970s branches co-ordinator Jane Streather; 1970s legal researcher and 1980s Director, now Labour life peer, Ruth Lister; social policy academic Jonathan Bradshaw, who co-founded the York branch and has recently returned to the executive committee; John Veit-Wilson who introduced himself as “probably the last living founder member”; Fran Bennett, Acting Director during the government’s major review of social security in 1984; Virginia Bottomley, who took the unusual journey from the CPAG to John Major’s Conservative Cabinet; David Bull, who was notable figure from local branches in Birmingham and Bristol; and historical sociologist and CPAG treasurer Garry Runciman, whose 1966 Relative Deprivation and Social Justice was said to be an inspiration to many of those on the panel.
I won’t try to recount the whole of the proceedings here. The event was recorded and will be transcribed, then that will be made available online – something much more satisfactory. But I will briefly note two things that stood out for me. One is that much of what I have come away from the archive saying, those things I thought were important and rarely featured, were central to the discussion. Right at the heart of this is the role of local branches, something that opens the question of whether we should be thinking about a group or a movement. Certainly there was a major grassroots campaign against poverty and especially against the spending cuts of the Thatcher government. Fran Bennett and others made the point that CPAG played an important leadership role in those campaigns.
The second thing that stood out for me was the comparison between the Thatcher years and today, something that kept creeping in. When it was addressed head-on, there was unanimous agreement: the situation was more benign in the 1980s than now. This is quite a claim when we keep in mind that the panel generally remembered fighting on behalf of the poorest families as rather swimming against the tide of public opinion. We’re also talking about a period when child poverty trebled. Yet, it was also a time when radical campaign groups like CPAG could work with what the Prime Minister dismissed as ‘wets’. These were (usually) backbench Tory MPs for whom there was no contradiction between their Conservatism and a desire to see government do something to ease the plight of the poor. These Tory MPs being willing to work with CPAG allowed them to win some concessions in minimising the spending cuts of the early 1980s. The fact this group included John Major also meant a more sympathetic resident in Downing Street in the 1990s.
One of the ways Mrs T (as Frank Field always called her) casts a long shadow on our politics, even a quarter of a century after she left office, is that it’s no easy task to find even a few Tory wets today.