We feel more insecure than ever. Photo: Getty
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Anxiety society: we need politics to reverse our cultural condition of stress

Insecurity is pervasive in our society; we need big politics – not tinkering around the edges – to combat this.

As the size of household unsecured debt reaches record levels and the fear of interest rates rises becomes ever more real it is now clear that chronic social and economic insecurity is now the hallmark of our times. But this isn’t a problem for the few. The effects run right through our socio-economic system and all bar a tiny disconnected elite are left unaffected. The rest of us suffer consequences from daily struggle, and even destitution, to squeezed living standards, fears for the next generation and time pressures. Insecurity is now commonplace for the majority and no longer an ignorable condition for the minority. As the election hoves fully into view – will any of these deep-seated social, economic and emotional challenges be addressed by the political class? 

The full extent and impact of insecurity is revealed in a new report Something’s not right: insecurity and an anxious nation – with some eye-catching, and eye-watering, findings. Three quarters of middle and lower income families are unable to afford the mortgage on a local three bedroom home. Stress and anxiety have become a cultural condition with mental health problems costing the economy a staggering £105bn per year. Being in paid employment and on an average income is no guarantee of being financially secure given the unprecedented fall in real wages and rising cost of living. Zero hours contracts are the tip of the insecure employment iceberg with middle-class employment becoming increasingly like conditions long experienced by the working class.

Beyond the statistics, insecurity erodes our sense of community and shared responsibility. As Zygmunt Bauman warned in the Seventies, the superficial attractions of a consumption based, individualist existence deny the basic human need for belonging and bring with it uncertainty, loneliness and the future as the site of fear instead of hope. Fragmentation and discontinuity create a sense of flux rather than solidity and our lives become disjointed and inconsequential rather than flourishing and fulfilled. We are left as individual pieces of flotsam in a shifting world and when misfortune strikes, like redundancy, ill-health, disability or relationship breakdown, we are very much on our own as collective responsibility for shared fates is lost and it is insecurity that dominates.

The insidious impact of insecurity has further effects because if people are insufficiently secure and certain, the ground is laid for a politics of fear, division and accepting others as scapegoats. This is very evident in the appeal of Ukip’s message that our problems are caused by migrants and the solution is to stop immigration. Similarly, those most likely to have negative views of benefit claimants are most likely to feel insecure themselves.

The good news is that creating a more secure society lies within the power of UK government. Neither separately nor combined do globalisation, technological advancement or a multitude of other forms of change mean increasing insecurity is inevitable; nor does the need for wise management of the public finances. Key policy levers to redress insecurity are already in place.

To take just one example, housing today is marked by unaffordability, insecure private tenancies and an ever increasing Housing Benefit bill. With the main political parties floundering it is to civil society we must look for solutions. Shelter and Friends of the Earth have both set out detailed plans showing how public money needs to be used to fund bricks and mortar house building not subsidies to landlords through housing benefit. The way to do this is by lifting the borrowing cap on councils and also bringing vacant properties into use. Introducing more secure tenancies and fair rent controls requires legislation but is cost free. Rather than the current viscous circle of unaffordability, rising Housing Benefit and so on, a virtuous cycle can be created of more housing, reduced cost of living, and greater security for private tenants to plan their lives.

Compared to the complexities of so many problems faced by government, from climate change to conflict in the Middle East, policies to redress insecurity are obvious, often simple and certainly achievable. The impediment is not lack of policy ideas but the shackles of narrow, dogmatic, intolerant, conformism to an excessively free-market approach for which – using the example of housing – meaningful devolution of financial powers to councils, balancing rights between landlords and tenants, and challenging the right of property owners to leave buildings unused, are anathema. As with housing, plans have been developed within civil society covering policy domains from the New Economics Foundation’s Five steps to a more effective social security system to the Smith Institute’s Making work better: an agenda for government, all identifying detailed, feasible and affordable policy options.

Policies to redress insecurity are often simple and achievable but the challenge is one of political will and courage. Policy tinkering, or trying to make things a little less bad, will not redress insecurity. This is about big politics not policy minutiae. What is needed is a vision of a genuine system of security for every citizen achieved through progressive and positive policy development across the full range of government activity. Only by doing so will we move beyond an Own Your Own approach to a collective and shared responsibility that provides the lasting basis for lives that are free because they are secure.

Dr Michael Orton is currently on a career break from his job as a researcher at the Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick. He is working on a major Compass project on social security and is now identifying solutions to socio-economic insecurity, within the context of building a Good Society.  Michael tweets as @MichaelOrton9

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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