Statistics to gladden the heart

More smokers, trees and cars: the latest social trends fill Paul Barkerwith optimism

I try hard to be a pessimist. But when I was reading the last Social Trends of the century, cheerfulness kept breaking in. Surprisingly, the Office for National Statistics has produced a good antidote to millennial gloom.

All the usual suspects are here. The poor are still poor (though about half of them move out of the lowest band of income every year). Regional disparities are still enormous. If you live in Cornwall - or Blackpool - your average earnings will be less than £300 a week. (So much for the charms of tourism as a form of economic regeneration.) In south-east England, your average earnings will be more than £400 - almost as high as people working in Aberdeen (£440). And whatever happens to incomes, wealth remains more or less untouched, down the years, by any form of redistribution.

But money, though nice, isn't everything. And it is important not to get bogged down in relativities and differentials. These are deeply locked into the social structure. Absolute changes may make more difference to most people's lives.

The much criticised NHS, for example, must be doing something right. Life expectancy continues to grow, at about two years every decade for men, and a year and a half for women (who started ahead in this particular race). And infant mortality has almost halved in the past 20 years. These are the two best yardsticks of the quality of national life. Nutrition, education and the rise in income even among the poorest all helped the health service deliver the goods.

The family, also, is not quite as frail as commentators make out. For the right, its supposed collapse marks the end of civilisation as we know it. For the left, the family has often been seen as the tie that trammels freedom. Both the fear and the hope are premature. (After all, the family has survived every sling and arrow, including the hostility of the early church, for thousands of years.) Couples may be marrying later. They may sometimes not marry till the woman is pregnant. Some of them end in the divorce courts. Still, four out of every five children are brought up in a family headed by a couple. And 90 per cent of these couples are married to each other.

This is yet more good news. Every study shows that the life chances - from birth onwards - of children raised by a couple much worse than those raised by a lone parent. Remember that Social Trends and I are both talking averages. There are plenty of exceptions to the rule, especially if you have money. But we are talking about the odds. The 100-to-1 outsider sometimes wins the Derby. This doesn't mean the bookies got it wrong.

I am cheered up by Social Trends' evidence of sheer bloody-mindedness. No one wants a goodie-goodie society. I haven't smoked for years, and would never start again. But there is something attractively resilient about the rise in smoking among teenagers. Consider the battery of advice, government health warnings and chit-chat about role models they have had to overcome. What is the point of being young if you can't annoy your elders?

Environmentalists have replaced communists as the great believers in human malleability. Social Trends does not support this. People may be told, time and again, that they ought not to be using their cars. But they continue to. Nor do fiscal penalties easily deter them. When the tolls for the Dartford and Severn crossings were put up well ahead of inflation, traffic increased. People are not using their cars for fun, but for convenience. And once they've got them, they keep on driving. The distance travelled by rail hardly changed between 1961 and 1997. But travel by car and van rose by almost 300 per cent. The genie of mobility is impossible to cram back into the bottle.

The landscape is much more malleable than people. (More or less none of it in Britain is "natural" in any obvious sense.) Woodland has doubled this century, to cover about 10 per cent of Britain's land. In recent years, fewer conifers have been planted than broad-leaved trees.

The greatest source of gloom, usually, is to assume that present trends will always continue. (As in: "If we build roads at the present rate, the whole of southern England will be under concrete.") According to some early forecasts, based on the first trends, almost the entire sexually active population should now be dying of Aids. It's a general rule, in reading journalism, that any sentence containing the word "exponential" is a lie. In 1997 the total number of Aids-related deaths was 654.

From the 1950s to 1982, cinema attendances fell and fell, to a low point of 54 million tickets. There seemed to be nowhere to go but out. Then the suburban multiplex was imported from America - handy for cars, pleasant for families, welcoming to women on their own. The trend of the previous 30 years was broken. In 1997, 124 million tickets were sold. Without hen parties at multiplexes, The Full Monty wouldn't have become that year's top-earning film, taking £44.9 million at the box office.

All is not for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Nor is life every day, in every way, getting better and better. Averages can hide as much as they reveal. But Social Trends is a useful winter woolly against the despair brought on by reading, or hearing, too many news headlines.

Browsing through these charts and tables made me decide I am a pessimistic optimist. For most people, most of the time, things are not as bad as they are painted. Which is just as well - because it can take a hell of a long time to make them a great deal better.

Paul Barker is a senior fellow of the Institute of Community Studies. "Social Trends" 1999 edition is published by the Stationery Office at £39.50

Paul Barker is group automotive editor at BusinessCar.co.uk.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times