What does the word “security” mean in your life? If you had a blank sheet of paper and were asked that question, what would you write?
This was a task focus groups around England were set this week. Groups of eight to ten locals scribbled down their answers in airless conference rooms in the Conservative-Labour marginal constituencies of Workington in Cumbria, Mansfield in Nottinghamshire and Stevenage in Hertfordshire.
The next general election could rest on their answers. Many were undecided voters – and their hometowns could be pivotal.
“Workington Man” was the label for the middle-aged, working-class Brexiteers who determined the 2019 election by voting Tory. Mansfield, a former mining town, foreshadowed the collapse of the “Red Wall” by making a historic switch from Labour to Conservative in 2017. And Stevenage, the first New Town built after the Second World War, is home to the disillusioned suburban “Stevenage Woman”, deemed Labour’s archetypal target voter by the think tank Labour Together. It ran these focus groups as part of a project on security, on which it will brief members of the shadow cabinet and the leader of the opposition’s office in a few weeks.
After work on a bright evening in Stevenage, locals gathered in the stuffy meeting room of a Holiday Inn – with a humbug-patterned carpet and flickers of car park through aluminium blinds. Security, to them, meant everything from owning their home and working in a stable job to having family and friends near by and guaranteed future healthcare. After the Covid-19 pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine, and in the grip of stubborn inflation and surging mortgage rates, they agreed that their lives were less certain than ever. A yearning for “peace of mind” rippled through the chatter. They wanted a “safety blanket”, a “secure future”.
On a recent visit to Washington DC, Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor and the Labour politician with the tightest grip on the party’s direction, announced her “securonomics” economic agenda. Essentially, this means a more active and strategic state, a robust industrial strategy, and an emphasis on growth beyond London.
While Reeves has long written about security, most notably in a 2018 pamphlet on her notion of the “Everyday Economy”, her team began focusing on it at the end of last year. Keir Starmer has adopted the language. The leader’s office has briefed shadow ministers and Labour MPs on it; David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, and Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow trade secretary, have absorbed it into their work. It’s seen by some insiders as a rare area of common purpose in a still fragmented operation. Labour’s own focus groups have also shown that the public responds well to the idea.
Since the beginning of the year, in speeches and at Prime Minister’s Questions, Starmer has used the word “security” 50 times. He used it 16 times in one speech in June. Over the same period, according to a rough count of set-piece domestic addresses and PMQs, Rishi Sunak used it 35 times. In general, the government has traded its “net zero” language for that of “energy security”.
It’s also caught on with influential charities and think tanks. The Trussell Trust food-bank network’s latest annual report on UK hunger cited “food insecurity” far more than in previous years. The anti-poverty charity Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has a paper on “economic security” due this month. When identifying Workington Man in October 2019, the centre-right think tank Onward released an analysis describing “the sea change in British politics away from freedom and towards security”. In its report introducing Stevenage Woman in April, Labour Together championed “a politics grounded in providing ‘security’, in the form of secure work, safe streets, and a strong nation”.
Before observing these focus groups, I assumed the word security would be taken more literally – a reference to physical safety, crime and privacy. While some participants did so, the majority wrote first about their finances, family lives and health.
This is hardly surprising. The social impact of the cost-of-living crisis on the British public is acute, as revealed in the most comprehensive annual snapshot of life in Britain – the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen)’s latest Society Watch report, published this month.
Concern about money or debt, mental health and work-life balance have all risen since 2018, it revealed. Forty per cent of Brits are now “very or extremely worried” about money or debt. The proportion with the same fear for their mental health has risen 7 percentage points since 2018 to 36 per cent, and by 8.5 percentage points to 36 per cent regarding work-life balance.
“People are digging into their savings and borrowing more,” said Richard Brown, NatCen’s director of society views who co-wrote the report. “It’s the coming together of material problems but also a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety that people have coming out of the pandemic… Politicians appear to be noticing that resilience is running down.”
Resilience, security’s sister concept, is also mentioned more often these days: in 2021 an Economist analysis of Hansard found that mentions of “resilience/resilient” began overtaking “efficiency/efficient” in parliamentary debates in 2020.
Where security once sounded more like a conservative term, bound up with defence, borders and law and order, it now encompasses more traditionally left preoccupations such as economic and social security. It appears to have overtaken both the David Cameron-era desire for streamlined budgets and the Blairite lodestars of opportunity and aspiration. It’s also beginning to supplant talk of “poverty”, “inequality” and “fairness” among the Labour leadership and some charities in this policy area. Security, I hear from sources within both, resonates because it’s considered less condescending, and gives individuals greater agency. Although freedom, too, feels secondary to this new rhetoric.
From conversations I’ve had, security on the left means strengthening the state, protecting the country from geopolitical shocks, enhancing social bonds, and sheltering individuals and places from market forces.
“It’s not camped in one part of the ideological spectrum, but it can speak positively to different parts of it,” said Graeme Cooke, director of insight and policy at JRF. “If you’re a liberal, it focuses on people’s individual agency and freedom. If you’re a social democrat, it challenges markets generating insecurities and shows the important role of the state. If you’re a conservative, it foregrounds the role of family and community and the ways in which untrammelled free markets can undermine that.”
A new political contest to “own” security, and measure its resonance, has begun. Labour finds its national security vision appeals most to voters when couched in the idea of buying and selling more within Britain. But linking security to social justice would chime better with people’s day-to-day concerns, argued Cooke, whose policy proposals include a national housebuilder, incentivising saving through Universal Credit, and flexible work as default.
Testing of public sentiment continues. Yonder, the consultancy behind Labour Together’s focus groups, uses the “laddering” technique to investigate how people feel emotionally about the concept. Its president, Andrew Cooper, a Tory-turned-crossbench peer who was No 10’s strategy director under Cameron (and went to school with Starmer), used this method in 2013 to shape the Conservative Party’s successful offer at the 2015 election.
“People so badly want not to worry about what’s coming round the corner, afraid there’ll be another lorry suddenly hurtling towards them,” said Josh Simons, director of Labour Together. “For too many, ordinary hopes have become impossible dreams. At the next election, the old rule of politics is back: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ More precisely: ‘It’s my bank balance, stupid.’ ”
This article appears in the 19 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How Saudi Arabia is buying the world