Rachel Reeves MP: Throwing a new light on loneliness

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  •  Monday, 11 December, 2017
     13:30 - 15:00

With 9 million people reporting that they are always or often lonely, as a society have we structured loneliness into our lives? Loneliness can be triggered by moments of transition that can happen to us all: the birth of a child, retirement, relationship breakdown, being a newcomer to this country, returning from serving in our armed forces, starting university, moving home, bereavement. The places where we came together – like churches, pubs and the workplace – have changed out of all recognition. Many of our connections have been turned into transactions. Rachel Reeves MP, Co-Chair of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, set out what the Commission has learned and gave her thoughts on how we can create a less lonely world. Neil O’Brien OBE MP responded, with the discussion chaired by Daily Mirror Columnist Ros Wynne-Jones.

Transcript: Rachel Reeves MP – Throwing a new light on loneliness

I’d like to thank Dean Godson for the invitation to speak here this afternoon.

And can I also say thank you to Policy Exchange on behalf of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, our partners and my co-chair, Seema Kennedy MP.

Later this week we will be publishing the manifesto of the Commission and setting out our ideas on how Government and we as a society can help tackle the problem of loneliness.

So it’s a great opportunity to have a debate about how we can begin solving the problem of loneliness and at the same time to ask what kind of society do we want to live in.

Jo had already taken the first steps to setting up the Loneliness Commission before she was tragically killed.

So as I said in my speech in Parliament after Jo’s death, it now falls on others – Jo’s friends, colleagues, all of us – to take forward the causes Jo cared about because she no longer can.

So it was an honour to be asked by Seema Kennedy – who set up the Commission with Jo – to help continue Jo’s work and this is what we are doing with your support.

Politics can sometimes get arid, and the commission is a great antidote to that.

We talk about





the things that matter deeply to people.

We’ve forged new friendships too – across the floor of the House. There is indeed “more that we have in common than that which divides us”.

For Jo, however big and complex a problem there was always a solution to it.

And loneliness is a big and complex problem.

So today I’ll follow Jo’s lead.

I’d like to talk about what loneliness is.

And what we can do about it.

When I first knew Jo she was working overseas for Oxfam and spending time with people living with extremes of violence and poverty.

Jo saw people struggling to survive genocide,

people desperate to save their children from starvation.

And yet when Jo would arrive back home, the stark contrast of abundant, peaceful England didn’t blind her to another kind of suffering.

She called it the ‘shocking crisis’ of loneliness.

The ‘shocking crisis’ of loneliness

In the last few decades loneliness has escalated from personal misfortune into a social epidemic.

The reasons are varied and complex:

The ways we live our lives

How we work


Families living apart.

The internet.

Whatever the reasons we are all more vulnerable to loneliness and we are less well equipped to overcome it.

Millions of us feel lonely.

Most commonly when we are growing up or getting old;

if we are disabled or poor and powerless;

or if we lose somebody or leave somewhere behind.

And when the culture and the communities that once connected us to one another disappear we can be left feeling abandoned and cut off from society.

Loneliness is not simply about being alone or in solitude.

If we find ourselves alone when we don’t choose to be, and if our isolation from those around us persists, we will feel lonely.

And because it is a stigma, we don’t want to admit to it and we avoid talking about it.

But we know it is a terrible affliction and I think we all fear its unbearable pain of emptiness.

The absence of love and the loss of connection to those around makes life unbearable.

Our life can become meaningless.

No one knows who I am.

When I am looked at nobody sees me.

If I speak, my words find no one.

Loneliness makes us feel worthless and we can begin to lose our reason to live.

An 80-year-old woman is housebound.

She has no visitors.

She sits day after day in her chair in her tiny flat.

From her chair the window is too high to see out of and so there is only the television.

She smokes.

She waits for the phone to ring.

Which it doesn’t.

A young girl checks her texts, Instagram, Facebook.

There is still nothing new.

She ‘likes’, but no-one ‘likes’ back.

A single man in his forties has lost his job and he feels as if he has been banished and there is no way back into his old life.

A teenager with learning disabilities feels acutely his difference and the sadness that he will never be like the other girls and boys.

He tells no one.

A young mother suffers depression and in her seemingly endless days alone with her baby she sees no one and no one knows her anguish, guilt and fear.

A widow suffers grief and in her grief she cannot get over her loneliness.

A husband divorced and separated from his children feels he has lost the meaning of his life.

A student away from home for the first time has not made a friend and wakes in the night panicked.

Will she meet someone?

She tries to imagine who that might be.

We understand that hunger is a warning signal.

It is nature’s way of telling us that we need food.

Thirst warns us to find water and drink.

Pain signals that our body is sick or damaged and needs repair.

Loneliness is also a warning signal.

It is nature’s way of telling us that we must make human contact or we will suffer a social death.

Humans need emotional connection with others in the same way we need food and water.

We are born into a state of complete dependency.

Our instincts and emotions are oriented toward our mother and our family who provides the love we need to live and grow.

Children need society to become adults.

First there is ‘we’, then me.

In loneliness we retreat into a state of self- preservation.

We become fearful and fend people off.

Even hide from them.

We behave in all the wrong ways because we have lost the social connection that attunes us to others and regulates our behaviour.

When we lose the social life of relationships we need, we are vulnerable to illness and to death.

We know that being lonely is associated with an impaired immune system.

Loneliness causes an increased incidence of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity.

It raises levels of cortisol in the body which can lead to depression and anxiety.

We become more at risk of heart disease.

We no longer sleep well.

Loneliness has become a public health issue.

Growing numbers of people are unable to respond to their loneliness and connect to others.

And it is not just a personal problem.

Loneliness has become structured into society and often we cannot overcome it without help.

A disconnected society

We are living in a disconnected society.

Poverty is increasing and it isn’t just about deprivation, it also means isolation.

Many of our traditional rites of passage into adulthood have disappeared.

Young people are left to navigate their own way into the future.

Without resources and family support they risk falling into loneliness.

More and more of us live alone.

We work at home.

Or in a van with just a stylus and tablet for company

We spend a greater part of our day alone than we did ten years ago.

The institutions that once brought us together – trade unions, churches, the local pub, the workplace – are now marginal or they have changed out of recognition.

Families are more separated by distance and those who divorce or who lose a husband, wife or partner have no one around them to grieve with.

Death has been medicalised and far too many of us are dying lonely deaths in anonymous hospitals or care homes, amongst strangers.

And as our society ages we call for more care homes. But when they can be institutions plagued by boredom, helplessness and loneliness – can that really be the answer?

The modern economy has generated great wealth but it has been at the expense of our connection with others.

Globalisation has fragmented communities.

Markets turn relationships into transactions.

Technologies can end up replacing people and their relationships – with machines.

Inequality divides us by wealth and status.

Consumer culture offers endless choice.

More and more it provides what we want when we want it.

But it can leave us emotionally unsatisfied.

The more we feel unrequited the more we want instant gratification.

And social media can have the same effect, dividing people from each other and reinforcing differences

We can edit ourselves online.

We can rub out the rough edges of our personalities and tidy up our relationships.

Be someone different.

Life online can seem simpler and easier than the real thing.

We check our Facebook, email, Instagram, while in meetings and while we are with our children, our family, our friends.

We are looking for that special message to satisfy our need.

Like addicts we are fully available to our devices but not to the people around us.

When society exhibits widespread loneliness it is a signal to change how we live together.

We all want freedom and we all want security.

We want to stand out and be unique and at the same time we want to feel a sense of belonging.

A good society achieves this balance between ‘me’ and ‘we’.

But we have lost this balance and tipped too far toward ‘me’.

We learn to look out into society as if we are separate from it; each of us entirely independent of others.

If we came into politics to make a difference, then it’s the job of politics to right the balance.

I believe we need a new model of welfare state.

The crisis of loneliness exposes the limits of our welfare system.

It is a deep challenge to our models of social reform.

Top down, target driven, payment by results, bureaucratic, Whitehall lever pulling – they won’t work.

They are costly, alienating and part of the problem.

Industrial models of reform based on state administration and market transactions treat individuals like units and have high costs of failure.

Our teachers, social workers, probation officers, employment and housing workers are our builders of a better society.

But they’ve been turned into cogs in a machine spending their time servicing the system with meetings, testing, assessing, referring, auditing and filling in questionnaires, forms and reports.

They want to make a difference but too often nothing changes.

If William Beveridge was alive today, I believe he would identify loneliness as one of his great evils.

Alongside the need for bread and health he would add the need for attachment and connection.

And he’d follow up on his belief in voluntary action and give more power and control to people.

Our welfare system is stretched to the limits and too many people have been pushed to theirs after years of austerity.

But, as well as more money, we need a new kind of welfare system that acts as a convener bringing people together to help them help themselves.

Developing the capabilities and assets we each need to live a good life.

Working to a set of priorities for a fair, safe and secure society.

Encouraging a sense of belonging.

Valuing the experience of esteem and respect.

And using the transformative power of relationships to change people’s lives for the better.

Three strategies for a more connected society

We can’t erase loneliness.

I’m not sure we should even if we could. If we didn’t feel lonely – would we then feel the comfort and joy of connection?

Loneliness is part of our human condition.

But we can reduce its prevalence and tackle the obstacles to overcoming it.

We can make sure our children grow up better equipped to cope with it.

While there is no single big policy that will defeat loneliness.

The change we need is human scale and step by step.

Learning as we go along about what works and what doesn’t.

For each lonely individual it begins with

a change in routine;

a new contact;

a conversation;

a friendship;

something shared.

Loneliness is a challenge to us to work together.

Here are three strategies for a more connected society.

First – a cultural strategy

We think of nostalgia as a rejection of progress.

Favouring the past over the present.

But we’ve got it wrong.

Nostalgia comes from the Greek word meaning to ‘return home’.

Amongst the young who are leaving home and those passing into old age, nostalgia is a powerful way of thwarting loneliness.

In a time of change and loss it is a way to focus on the question, what has my life meant?

For young and old remembering cherished moments affirms we are valued people with meaningful lives.

Nostalgia raises our self-esteem and optimism.

Scholars at Southampton University have found that it is the most resilient individuals who faced with loneliness are best able to use nostalgia to restore their social connections and protect their mental health.

Popular culture is full of nostalgia.

Music, tv programmes, film, hobbies like making family trees, local history projects, use nostalgia to strengthen our social connections in the present.

In my own constituency, Bramley History Society helps tell the story of our city suburb – in Leeds but with its own identity. And campaigning to preserve local institutions like the Baths and Library, we tell how their story is part of our shared identity.

Place, where we are from, is important for us all. It helps us describe who we are and where we fit in.

In our disconnected society we need to value the benefits of nostalgia and find ways of using it to create shared meanings of belonging and identity.

Second – a strategy for character

In 1939, three years before the Beveridge report was published, John Bowlby, Emanuel Miller and Donald Winnicott sent a letter to the British Medical Journal.

It was war, and the authorities had begun to evacuate children from the cities.

They warned of the risks to very young children.

The agonies of separation from their parents and their home could result in, ‘an emotional black-out’ and ‘very serious and widespread psychological disorder’.

Bowlby and Winnicott went on to transform popular understanding of the early life of children and the need for attachment and relationships.

Their work has taught us the psychological and moral qualities our children need to thrive.

Children who flourish and who have resilience when things get tough are those who have had good attachment in early life and who know they are worth being loved.

We need to invest in early years to ensure all children have the capabilities to communicate their needs, make relationships, and to play.

That’s why schemes like Sure Start and Children’s Centres matter so much.

Expanding Citizens Service for teenagers can also help teach young people how to make connections with others and so gain emotional skills and self confidence; and why not expand this service to older citizens to draw on their wisdom and experience?

Third – a community strategy

Social change needs millions of small changes.

Jo always looked out for other people. If everyone lived life like Jo the world would be a better place.

Today much of the county is covered by snow. And people in the street strike up conversations – people even knock on a neighbour’s door to check they are ok. We call this the “permission of snow”.

But it ought not take an unusual event or a

moment of meteorological curiosity for us to feel we can say hello or call in on a friend or neighbour.

We need to create new institutions, services and organisations that connect people with one


And we need to think how we can use new technologies to expand connectivity not social isolation and enrich rather than impoverish society.

And there are old ways we can revive.

From the start of life, birth companions can provide support to mothers giving birth alone.

To its end, with End of Life companions for those dying alone.

Community led projects are at the forefront of the campaign against loneliness.

London Citizens Parents and Communities Together works with babies and their parents to tackle social isolation and improve outcomes.

Reconnections in Worcestershire works on a one-to-one basis with lonely people. It connects and supports them into local activities that they are interested in.

In my own constituency in Leeds, Bramley Lawn has been transformed from a struggling day centre into a thriving hub running support for people with Dementia, and bringing together young and old in a wide range of activities.

Local anchor institutions such as businesses and universities can work with community organisations and act as social connectors in their local areas.

Businesses can use apprentice schemes as connector programmes. Linking apprentices to each other means networks across social divides can be created.

Social media and new technologies provide the means for an exponential explosion of connectivity if we are willing to put people before the maximisation of profit.

As I draw to an end, let me reflect on the work of the Commission.

The Loneliness Commission and our 13 partner organisations along with hundreds of other groups are in the forefront of campaigning to make loneliness an issue that people care about.

We want central and local government to play a role in reducing the levels of loneliness by measuring the impact of their services and policies on social connection.

We could extend Citizens Service for young people and introduce versions for older citizens.

And not just Teach First, but really promote Teach Last so more older people can bring their knowledge and experience into the class room.

English lessons for all non-English speakers would help break down the social isolation of refugees and people seeking asylum.

These are just some ideas…

To solve a problem we must first recognise it and name it and then we need to think together how to solve it.

This is the purpose of the Loneliness Commission when we launch our final report Combatting loneliness one conversation at a time on Friday.

Our ambition is simple.

Everyone can live a life less lonely.

Thank you.

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