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15 January 2001

Throw a six and you might get a job

An ingenious board game has revived the luck of three friends, reports Peter Dunn

By Peter Dunn

Thanks to Mike “The Mouth” Elliott and three Geordie drinking pals in Stonybroke, Workshyre, Tony Blair and other members of the Cabinet had the chance to spend Christmas on the dole – although they don’t seem to have been very grateful for the opportunity.

Stonybroke is the fictional town of Social Insecurity, a new board game about life’s losers in the shark-infested deep end of Cool Britannia. The game, described as “Monopoly in reverse”, was devised by three unemployed men – Kevin Patterson, Mike Harris and the artist Peter Dixon – over “a pint or three” in the Magnesia Bank, a pub in North Shields, not far from the Prime Minister’s constituency of Sedgefield. The game was market-tested in the north-east in the run-up to Christmas and will be launched at the London Toy Fair at the end of this month.

It was Mike “The Mouth” – a comedian, militant miner in the film Billy Elliot and rough-hewn presenter for Gateshead’s Century radio station – who suggested sending the awesomely off-message game to the government’s leaders, whose silence since has been eloquent. Social Insecurity, like its American counterpart Monopoly, is a child of economic depression, so deep-rooted now in the PM’s homeland region that a recent Northern Echo splash warned that the north-south divide was in danger of becoming a chasm.

Where Monopoly was about resurgence through property deals and ruthless capitalism, Social Insecurity is tailored to the Blatcherite “no job is for life” philosophy that haunts people’s nightmares even in the prosperous south. Stonybroke’s eight cartoon characters – they include a single mother, an eternal student and a beer- bellied Stan Blink based on Mike “The Mouth” – bounce between benefit office, day centres and Job Centre interviews through an urban poverty-trap of pubs, cut-price shops, bookies, Chinese takeaways, predatory cab companies and bingo halls. Players start with a £50 dole cheque and must accumulate £1,000 in savings to win. It is a tough, cheerful game with few rewards and many fines for being poor in the first place. It is also for adults. One “penalty” is to miss a turn because your big toe gets stuck in a tap while having “a bath and a J Arthur”.

There are startling similarities between the genesis of Monopoly and that of Social Insecurity. Monopoly was first sketched on a piece of kitchen oilcloth in 1930 by its inventor, Charles Darrow, a jobless heating salesman in Germantown, Pennsylvania. It was rejected by the giant board-game company Parker Brothers, which then changed its mind and made Darrow a millionaire. Social Insecurity was roughed out by Kevin Patterson on the back of a James Bond film poster that he had pinched from his sister. He showed it to his two friends in the Magnesia Bank and they worked on it over loads of pints for two years. It was rejected by a British firm, Winning Moves, because the company didn’t want to run it against its own production of regional Monopolies, but was saved when Mike “The Mouth” persuaded Peter Duncan, now a London-based venture capitalist, to back it.

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“Most people are insecure about their jobs, wondering whether they’ll be there or not next year,” says Patterson. “I’ve been there a few times myself, so it’s based on my experiences, and Mick’s and Pete’s.” Mike Harris, a former DJ in the Midlands who later worked in bingo halls and Pontins, got involved in Social Insecurity after a new company took over entertainment at Newcastle’s Metroland centre and sacked him. “What’s important at the end of the day is to laugh at life,” he says. Mike Elliott seems driven by more serious considerations. “The radio station sacked me for six months,” he says. “They said I was drunk on air, but actually I was ill. Then Capital bought it out, realised I was an asset and reinstated me. Since then, I’ve told everyone what it was like, how I had trouble with my marriage, nearly lost my home.”

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Passionately pugnacious (he once described a caller to his radio programme as a “wanker”), Elliott was a leading supporter and fundraiser for the miners during the 1984 strike. The badges worn by pickets in Billy Elliot were borrowed from his treasured collection. Pre-1997, he was a close admirer of Tony Blair and, in particular, of Blair’s constituency agent, John Burton. “I did a gig to open his labour club. I raised money for him for years, but not any more,” Elliott says. “I’m for socialism, not this new Labour malarkey. You’re in opposition 18 years, then you get power, and they seem totally unprepared for it. Three years on and they’re still trying to come up with policies for transport, hunting and this and that – all those things that should have been sorted in the first month. He could have done anything, but he’s just let a lot of people down.

“Tony Blair, the London branch of the Labour Party, what’s the difference? Some of them are embarrassed by parts of their own country. There’s a tendency for them to think people up here wear cloth caps, when it’s actually a vibrant area that can do the business. People up here get the feeling they’re forgotten, and there’s anger about that. There are lads here in their fifties will never work again and they’re talented people. What the London branch doesn’t understand is that our industrial past has made people very community-oriented in small developments, like Social Insecurity. We’ve had huge offers from businessmen who want to get involved. But even if someone offered us millions we’d turn them down, because we want to take it on ourselves, because we believe in ourselves.

“I’ve threatened to stand against Tony Blair. I’d also give Peter Mandelson a good run for his money down in Hartlepool. A lot of people know me from the radio down there. It was said as a joke originally, but you never know . . .”

Website: www.socialinsecurity.co.uk