The principle of together. It’s the founding mission for Labour Government laid out by Ed Miliband on Tuesday. The state reaching out to lonely souls to make them whole. There’s a problem though: the evidence is that we’re not lonely.
Only 6% of people say that they feel lonely all the time or regularly, compared to over half who say that they never feel that way. The same ComRes survey found that 77% of people feel less lonely than they did 10 years ago. After a half century of atomisation, it seems that we’re reforming into molecules.
Our satisfaction with family life is rising. When given a scale of 1 to 10, the average response on the latest survey was 8.2; that’s up from 7.9 in 2003. And it’s not absence making the heart grow fonder. More than 3.3 million adults between the ages of 20 and 34 are living with parents, over a quarter of that age group, a big rise since the recession sending us towards the rate of countries like Italy where young people live at home for much longer.
Policy though usually ignores these bonds between us. Labour’s signature policy from the conference was more funding for the NHS so that the service has the ‘time to care’. Yet the bulk of social care is provided informally by people we know – estimated to be worth up to £96bn a year – or roughly forty times the additional funding Labour has promised.
But the disconnect between the principle of together and what Labour proposes is even bigger than that. The additional taxes to pay for the time to care are specifically targeted at small groups – such as the people owning the roughly 100,000 houses worth more than £2m. Labour isn’t making a political argument to all of us; it’s compelling the few to bear a greater burden for the sake of the many.
This may be good politics but it’s not what most social democracies do. The tax burden tends to be more widely distributed in countries that have a larger state. Labour’s approach might also represent bad planning. As we discovered to our cost after the financial crisis, when public finances rely so much on tax revenues from a small elite then the cycle of boom and bust is that much harder to ride.
The truth is that in private we’re already making sacrifices for our togetherness: in an Ipsos MORI survey, over 80% of Brits said that it’s more important to have a good balance between work and life than to have a successful career. We’re not lonely, we’re happily caught in our social networks.
The question is how much further do our responsibilities as citizens run, beyond our families into the lives of strangers. That is the big political argument; and Labour didn’t join it this week. Instead Ed Miliband’s speech felt like the expression of a heroic politics – look what I can do as Prime Minister – not a politics, despite the slogan, of what we can do together.