In October 2015 I wrote about the implications of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour leader standing on the pledge of a new “kinder politics and a more caring society”. I talked about the glimmer of hope offered by policies which focused on tackling the social determinants of health, reducing inequality and improving services for those most in need. Also, the way in which social media can be used to counter the zombie ideas which are perpetually recycled by the mainstream media (on tax reduction, the need for austerity and the primacy of the market). Nine months later there is little left of that glimmer of hope amongst a constant barrage of media stories about political upheaval, financial crises, poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, increasing racist attacks, the NHS funding crisis, Brexit and a deeply divided UK population. Uncertainty, inequality and division predominate and the social contract appears to be falling apart.
A selection of current stories illustrates this.
We are repeatedly told that the NHS is in crisis with both referral times and waiting times targets being missed. The problem has got so bad that in an unprecedented move today NHS bosses scrapped all fines for missing targets in A&E, cancer and routine operations, and over 50 English hospitals have been told that they can miss targets on waiting times this year’. This move comes just days after the cross-party Health Select Committee suggested that the government has ‘given the wrong impression’ about the amount of money they are investing in the NHS, by using a ‘different definition of spending to give the idea of more funding’. They suggest that actual funding levels being made available are £3.9bn below the £8.4bn proposed by Jeremy Hunt. The move to waive targets could be seen as a response to the failure to provide more money to improve services.
Another current news story suggests that the inability to regulate private landlords properly, along with the lack of genuinely affordable housing has led to a rise in homelessness coupled with people being forced to live in increasingly squalid conditions. To mark 50 years of campaigning against homelessness the charity Shelter has released contemporary photos resembling the slums of the 1960s showing the conditions in which many of the people they support are forced to live,. The number of people living in privately rented accommodation has risen by a quarter in the past 6 years, and Shelter gets 1200 calls a day from people unable to pay their landlords. Campbell Robb, the chief executive of Shelter, said: “These figures are a stark reminder that for millions of families and young people it’s becoming utterly impossible to create a stable future in a place they can really call home”.
There are also plenty of examples that have emerged through the Brexit campaign. The National Police Chiefs Council, for instance, recorded a 5 fold increase in complaints registered on the Police online hate-crime reporting site following the Brexit vote. From the Guardian to the Telegraph, CNN to Aljazeera there have been reports of an increase in racist and xenophobic attacks, with the UK leave vote being seen by some as a license for more open expressions of the racial prejudice. This issue was highlighted as a matter in the British Social Attitudes Survey in 2013, with increasing numbers of people admitting to being prejudiced, but post-Brexit it appears to have grown exponentially.
And what of Corbyn, the instigator of this pledge for a more caring society? Following the EU referendum the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) has backed a campaign to oust Corbyn as leader stating that he is a ‘nice guy’ whilst suggesting variously that: he lacks leadership skills; is too left wing and is alienating both potential middle of the road and traditional labour supporters; that he was too low key in the Remain campaign during Brexit; and that he has failed to hold the current government to account for austerity policies. Putting aside views on whether Corbyn is the right person to lead the Labour party, the vote of no-confidence by colleagues alongside the almost constant negative media coverage has not helped his quest for a ‘kinder’ style of politics. Over 50,000 people have signed a petition saying the BBC is biassed against him, and researchers at LSE found that 75% of stories about Corbyn in the newspapers ‘either distorted or failed to represent’ his views on topics, with only 10% being positive and over 50% being antagonistic or critical in tone. If the mainstream media illustrate the power of neo-liberalism, the 1% appear to be winning.
But all is not yet lost. Yesterday, Suzanne Moore, writing in the Guardian, called for people to engage and fight against the uncertainty, anxiety and division. And there are glimmers of hope still to be seen.
The most recent British Attitudes Survey was undertaken in 2015 suggests that over 9 in 10 people recognise that the NHS is facing a funding crisis and that the most popular way to address this is through tax rises. Furthermore, for the first time in a decade, there has been an increase in the number of people advocating more public spending and those surveyed were evenly split on whether there should be more government spending on health, education and social benefits. In summarising the changes in attitudes, Kirby Swales, the director of the NatCen Survey Research Centre suggests that
“a cohesive democracy should worry about a public that describes society as divided by class and says social mobility is decreasing, especially if the jobs of those at the bottom are getting worse while those of others get better or if the public is gradually losing faith in the electoral system. We must think about how we can find consensus on a way forward for the health service and the welfare state”.
There is recognition both of current inequality and division, but also of the need for people to come together and create consensus on how to move forward.
And people are coming together to show solidarity, or community spirit, or shared humanity. From the rise in the number of individuals joining political parties, campaigning and protest groups, to the #SafetyPin campaign showing solidarity with immigrants, to the crowd funding campaign in Norwich, which raised £30,000 for victims of a race hate attack on an Eastern European shop, people are coming together. Since the May 2015 general election membership of the Labour Party has risen from under 200 000 members to over 500 000, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that at least some of these have joined in the hope of fighting for ‘a kinder politics and a more caring society’.
Last week teachers at a local primary school took children out on to the high street armed with cupcakes and flowers. These gifts were distributed randomly to people in the streets and working in the shops, and each had a label attached stating that the recipient had received a random act of kindness from the pupils at the school. Danny Dorling suggested, in a paper presented at the British Medical Sociology Conference in September 2015, that it is the young who are bearing the brunt of the austerity, uncertainty and division that we are being bombarded with and that it is the young who are beginning to fight back. While protest, campaigning and political organisation are at the heart of this, a cupcake and a flower are symbolic steps in the right direction.