Miliband must be the man for the middle

The very poor and the rich will not lose their homes in the Tory cuts to come — but a safety net is

Ed Miliband doesn't have the luxury of time. He has warned that it could take a while to propose a new programme for government; the party, he told the Labour conference, needs to "go on a journey". It had better be a quick one, because on 20 October voters will be looking to Labour's new leader for his response to the Conservative spending plans. If he doesn't say something clear and positive to them, they may not look again.

Miliband needs to sound as if he is on the side of families that risk losing their livelihoods through unnecessarily harsh Conservative cuts and that have little asset wealth to fall back on. This is the "squeezed middle". The risks are highest in the south, where there are higher house-price-to-earnings ratios, and where inequality is so great that you need a fair amount of asset wealth behind you to avoid the risk of joining the new poor: those who lose their homes due to sudden unemployment, and subsequently cannot afford to get back on the social ladder. If Miliband wants to see an equal society, he should start here.

Baby monitor

Inequality in the south of Britain is now so bad, and life so consequently insecure, that it dominates everything: people's choice of schools, where they live and how unaffordably high their mortgages are. It even affects fertility, as parents must wait longer until they can afford a home in which to have children.

In the north-east, there are 77 births a year per 1,000 women aged 20-24; in the north-west, 81. But in the south-east, that falls to 65. Between the ages of 25 and 35, the south gradually overtakes the north, until among 35- to 39-year-olds there are 64 births per 1,000 women in the south-east, but 44 in the north-east (2008 figures).

Admittedly, slightly more people are working in the south, and there is also known to be a correlation between the age of first giving birth and education - but unless you believe that everyone in the north is uneducated and unemployed, and everyone in the south is jolly clever, this is unlikely to explain such a clear pattern. More likely, women in the south put off having children because both parents need to work in order to buy (or rent) somewhere to live.

The last time I wrote about the squeezed middle classes, a reader wrote a letter to the New Statesman sneering at the notion that they might merit any sympathy. That sneer is a mistake, because there are millions of them, not only in the south - and these are the people who can win Labour the next election. The biggest swings to the Conservatives in 2010 were in the places where the richest live - in southern and eastern England and parts of the Midlands - places where extremes of wealth and poverty are greatest. There are a lot of very socially and financially insecure people in the middle: Broken Britain voted Tory. (It also voted BNP.)

There is plenty of support within Labour for policies that actually might win an election. The younger Miliband told the conference, Blair-like, that they ain't gonna like much of what he's gonna say - but actually it won't be because he's not left-wing enough. Look at the voting figures: the members didn't vote for Ed, they voted for David. They backed the "right-winger". Fortunately, Ed is not as left-wing as he has been portrayed, just as David is not as New Labour as some have painted him.

The growing intergenerational inequality in asset wealth that we have in Britain affects us all; but it affects people struggling in the middle more than it affects those who are entitled to social housing. In more and more areas of southern England, where the very wealthy buy or rent second homes, and no new houses are being built, many working families already know that they won't ever be able to buy their own house.

It's a pattern that began in London, where increasingly you must be very rich or very poor to be housed. Where I live, in the rural south, many families rely on what is basically charity from privately owned country estates. Feeling an obligation to help house poorer local families that are not eligible for social housing, they rent out cottages to them at reasonable, below-market, rates. But the waiting list is long.

Welfare rethink

There is so much space here for Miliband to occupy. It wouldn't be recognised by most of the media, because they inhabit the world of the rich. What Miliband should do is to offer a safety net for the people who are scared for their families under the forthcoming assault by the Conservatives; the current welfare system will not do. Never mind for a moment the level of welfare for the long-term unemployed and incapacitated, there needs to be a proper safety net reintroduced for the threatened middle, the middle poor - whatever you want to call them - to save them from these new social risks.

The Conservative cuts will threaten their livelihoods, plunging families into crisis, and Labour needs to have a response that supports them. It must protect their homes and pay a sufficient level of welfare to see them through to a new job. They manage it in the US. That, after all, is what the welfare state was conceived for, not to subsidise lethargy. At the conference, Miliband cited William Beveridge as a politician he admired; he should start from there.

I see little sign that anyone in the Conser­vative Party is contemplating the fundamental rethink of welfare that we need in Britain (though Nick Clegg has hinted at it). They have nothing to say about the people they are about to hurt - real people with real families that have worked hard. Labour, with its fresh leader and with voters' interested eyes upon him, has a chance to speak to them instead. But it cannot wait or sit out a rambling journey. Ed Miliband has less than three weeks.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood