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 decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era