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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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.