Are recent public policy responses avoiding the ‘too difficult’ questions and issues?
The tragic assassination of the late Jo Cox MP was something that understandably shook a lot of people active in elected politics. In this age of wanting to increase personal privacy in the face of everything online, it’s easy to forget that MPs and councillors have to make public a whole host of personal information that many citizens would more than think twice over doing the same. For example home addresses and personal phone numbers.
In response, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness was launched – see https://www.jocoxloneliness.org/ – it’s well worth a look.
‘Loneliness can affect anyone at any stage of their life’
So writes the Commission. How many of us look back at the unpopular child in your class from school and wonder what happened to them? Or the old person at church who would turn up every Sunday but never speak to anyone?
I’ve written a number of blogposts on loneliness – both personal perspectives and analyses of the growing concern of what is now seen as a public policy issue.
- Only the lonely – a response to Stephen Fry (June 2013)
- Overcoming society’s problem with loneliness (ft Tom Watson of Labour) (Dec 2013)
- What if that person struggling is…me? (Dec 2016)
It was also such an issue for me that I wrote it into Puffles’ 2014 manifesto for Cambridge under Theme 10 – An Active City.
One of the saddest songs from my teenage years about loneliness was from 1993/94 by The Levellers – Julie.
…followed by one from around the same time that I listened to lots during my final year at university, from the Riverdance.
Fortunately the cassette tape (remember those?) finished with more upbeat tracks, so it wasn’t all doom & gloom!
“What about the public policy responses?”
Much of the focus thus far has been aimed at the over-65s. The Office for National Statistics put out a research note on loneliness. Note Age UK here. The Jo Cox Commission has got other organisations involved note The Co-op & British Red Cross.
It was in 2015 that there seemed to be a growing awareness that the issue went far beyond the over-65s. Note this blog on the UK Government’s public health blog.
“So…what’s not working?”
The causes of loneliness, from my personal perspective, feel a lot more complex and complicated than the policy responses seem to indicate. Furthermore, solving the problem (if you can at all) is one that is going to take a very long time and an incredible amount of persistence. This is one of the limitations of the Jo Cox Pledge. It risks being the equivalent of liking a social media page, getting lots of ‘likes’ back from your social media contacts that you ‘liked’ this social media page, then everyone forgets and moves on. A sentiment spoofed in the video below:
So how do we go beyond the superficial without getting to a stage I can only describe as sympathy or empathy fatigue?
It takes a lot of effort from a lot of people to overcome loneliness
It’s not simply a case of doing a bit of outreach or gathering lots of people for an annual ‘big lunch’ (nice as they are – such as the Eden Project here), especially if four walls, whether a bedroom or a rabbit hutch flat is all that you have to go back to. Further more, as the studies are now showing, different things can trigger sensations of loneliness, that can spiral down into depression and mental health problems – as they did with me in the late 1990s. In my case it was anxiety – along with not knowing it was a medical condition and so not seeking any help (not that there was much out there at the time) to deal with the mental health bit. But for others it might be things such as:
- Moving to a new place (eg for study, work etc)
- Taking maternity/paternity leave
- Family split/friendship group split
- Deceased friends/family
This means that there is no ‘one size fits all’ policy response.
It’s nice to see campaigns to encourage people to watch out for the mental health of their friends – such as this one. It breaks my heart that we didn’t have something like this in the mid-1990s. Hence my take with a lot of the social issues I’ve been asked to support in recent times locally, my take is to do it for the next generation, knowing that it’s all too late for me to benefit personally.
Private sector responses to loneliness
When I first moved to London a decade ago, I looked around and found a few entrepreneurs had set up online social clubs for professionals (such as this one) who had graduated from university, moved to a new city and found they didn’t know anyone. The arrangement was simple. You paid a monthly subscription then booked the events you wanted to go to. They had a returnable £5 deposit refunded on turning up due to the number of no-shows early on.
For some people they worked, for me they didn’t. I found myself meeting new people all the time and then never seeing them again…and getting bored at having to re-explain a bit about my background to someone who would either never see me again or who wanted to sell me something related to their business. Basically I got to the stage where I wanted to meet up with people who already knew me. But health plus long hours in a high profile intensive policy area just as the banks were about to topple meant that it was always going to be hard work for me. I didn’t seem to have the knack of turning up to a gathering of strangers and instantly becoming an integral part of their group as I have seen others do. I’m too intense as an individual.
What if you have no money?
Health and finances are the two biggest things that stop me from going out and about to the things I’d like to go to. I know people who are in a worse position than me who are completely dependent on the state because of life circumstances. Relationship splits, disabilities, injuries, breakdowns – all things that can have an impact on a person’s capacity to earn a living. Hence from a public policy perspective, part of the challenge is finding a ‘zero fee’ solution to responding to / preventing loneliness.
The elephant in the room – the structure of our economy and society
One of the things that strikes me about going through newspaper archives in Cambridge is just how ‘social’ the town seemed to be. There always seemed to be something going on and there were always adverts inviting people to take part. Bearing in mind that the town was much smaller geographically back then – where my home is was once an open field a hundred years ago, it’s strangely wonderful to see such a buzzing civic society.
But with so many of us moving away from working for large employers and now working as ‘self employed’ – a false economy in my view and something that enables the government of the day to show its getting the unemployment figures down – see here, the instability of self-employment and zero hours means that the institutions that helped bring and more importantly, keep people together, have crumbled. Traditionally, Tories have pointed to the decline of church attendance while Labour have pointed to the decline of trade unions. Yet the archives show that it wasn’t a simple left-right split. Just as there were many non-left-wing associations, there were many left wing churches and religious associations – a number of people in the latter going on to become local councillors in Cambridge. The most well-known being Dr Alex Wood for the Labour Party who also stood for Parliament repeatedly in the 1930s. (Alex Wood Hall in Cambridge is named after him).
While ministers are happy for this rise in self employment and zero hours contract work to remain – at the expense of the many but for the profit of the few, loneliness is not going to go away for the working population. It’s going to get worse. No sick pay, no paid holiday, no time off for civic duties – and you wonder why there are hardly any people in their 20s and 30s willing and able to put their names forward for election to public office? Governments and politicians of all colours over the past couple of decades have been content in the name of ‘supply side economics’ and a ‘flexible labour force’ amongst other things to undermine the very things that could help prevent the rise of loneliness.
Take the uncertainty and anxiety away – and perhaps people might have an incentive to get involved in civic life. Cambridge University’s model of short-term contract after short-term contract has been incredibly destabilising for our city’s state primary schools. Children are here for a few years at a point when there are a shortage of places, but then end up with a small surplus as families move on due to research contracts not being renewed.
This is where I consider too many politicians to be imprisoned by their own ideologies – unable to consider policies that are outside the neo-liberal straight-jacket of the past few decades.