The connecting state

With the General Election revealing a divided nation, Alex Smith discusses how we must reform public services to better connect with one another.

As the general election results showed, Britain is a mixed up place. Although the poll on 7 May brought a decisive enough Conservative majority, it also revealed a number of divisions which are fragmenting our country.

Fifty-six out of 59 Scottish MPs now attend Westminster with the express goal of seceding from the United Kingdom altogether. Our major cities, especially London, Manchester and Birmingham, remain bastions of urban social democracy. A map doing the rounds since the election shows that where there once was a coalfield – in the West Midlands, North East and South Wales – there is still a cluster of Labour MPs. But most of the rest of England is defiantly Tory.

The morning after the night before, David Cameron spoke of a traditional ‘One Nation’ theme. But the prime minister will surely have known that the reality of contemporary Britain is that it is anything but united. In fact, Britain is an awkward assortment of parallel attitudes, parallel priorities and parallel lives. And the Conservatives’ uneasy majority, delivered as it was by older people (in small towns) against the will of most young people (particularly in cities), makes stark some of the key questions of our time.

In a rapidly changing world, how do people from vastly different demographics relate to one another? How do we prepare young people for an ever more fluid economy when our institutions of learning and employment support are so static? With an ageing population, the biggest generation in history about to reach retirement, and a steady increase in the number of people suffering dementia, how do we ensure people live better lives, not just longer lives? And in a time of reduced public spending and scepticism about the legitimacy or ability of government to perform vital functions, what is the role of the state in this patchwork?

All of these questions will provide the new Cameron government with headaches over the coming years. But it’s on the ground, where it really matters, where these problems will manifest themselves. And, sadly, distinctions across social, generational, regional and economic divides are even more pronounced in Britain’s communities than they are in our psephology.

Within the capital, social extremes are especially clear. London contains some of the best-connected people in Britain – high-flying graduates working in PR, media, the law, consultancy – but also some of the most isolated, with particular challenges to do with urban dislocation, deprivation, depression and anxiety. Often, these two groups live side by side, but hardly ever interact. This wastes human potential, perpetuates social division, entrenches isolation and is ultimately corrosive for our society.

Such differences define our modern economy. But there’s increasing talk of specific chasms between whole generations too: as house prices continue to soar, benefitting older homeowners at the expense of their children, and while the labour market continues to provide challenges for young people, theories of intergenerational conflict are now often taken as read.

These challenges of disaffinity remain largely unmet by the mechanisms of government, business and charity because, as ex-guru-cum-Californian-hipster Steve Hilton wrote in his recent book More Human, they are incapable of the type of emotional connection and intrinsic trust which motivate people in their everyday lives and define our relationships. For all our advances in economics, technology, business and infrastructure, in the hungry gobble of instant gratification (and electoral cycles), in our rush to conserve precious time and money, we’ve somehow prioritised what’s efficient over what’s important. As a result, if anything, our major institutions, from the welfare state to the homogenised high street, have perpetuated disconnection across classes, geographies and generations, rather than reduced it.

Even our traditional relationships with power – through trade unions, local government, religion – have frayed. That’s because big bureaucracies, including formally key social binders such as banks, the media, the police, even schools and the NHS, have become so remote as to be virtually alien. These organisations used to represent the pillars of community. But in 2015 many such institutions have followed meaningless technocratic tickbox strategies, and thereby lost their human face and the understanding that came with it. It’s easy to see why trust in large structures has dissipated: who wants to listen to lift music while waiting to speak to an ‘operator’ hundreds of miles away who is in hock to ‘the system’? Computer says no one.

This new world disorder benefits some but provides a particular challenge for many older people whose social networks have diminished over time, especially in fast-moving cities and amongst the working classes. Under the post-war settlement, over-65s were secure in their access to social housing, and thereby to stable relationships. Council policies created clusters of community in which families and friends could stay together for decades at a time. People raised families at ease in the knowledge that their sons and daughters could affordably live within a few doors’ reach, and that long-time neighbours could grab a pint of milk or accompany them to the doctor’s at short notice.

But these once tight-woven communities have loosened. Right to Buy and a failure of consecutive governments to build new homes in the midst of a housing boom have accelerated transience. Globalisation, migration, gentrification, digitisation and commercialisation creeping through the public realm mean that these familiar and formerly stable communities have become anonymous, isolating places for many older people who can become invisible in their own neighbourhoods.

In this ever-shifting landscape, what hope for the clunky, archaic, remote welfare state? The welfare state was first articulated in the Beveridge Report of 1942 – a time of war and rationing. Beveridge’s recommendation was for government to tackle the five impoverishing giants of his time: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Some of these challenges remain, of course, but in 2015 Beveridge’s giants have been dwarfed by new monsters. The New Economics Foundation pithily articulates Five Ways to Wellbeing that, notwithstanding the basic need for quality housing, people need to flourish: to connect, to be active, to take notice, to keep learning and to give. If Beveridge were writing today, he might update his five ills to: disconnection, inactivity, narrowing horizons, inauthenticity and entitlement.

These are not issues that our welfare state is capable of fixing directly. Payments for everyone with children; tax credits which seek to offset, rather than solve poverty; pensions which grow in perpetuity regardless of the recipient’s wealth; universal winter allowances for all over-62s (a time of life quite different from the same life stage 70 years ago); housing top-ups which further inflate the market – these are not modern solutions for modern problems. And for too many, they provide a comfort blanket rather than a safety net.

Instead, the future welfare state, in a world that always has and always will spin on who you know as well as what you know, will need to prioritise making connections over making payments alone. Through localised commissioning and partnerships with new city and borough mayors, community groups, businesses, NHS agencies, and powerful informal networks, a newly affordable, relatable cradle-to-grave approach for the networked age can be built which supports people to become resilient rather than reliant.

Most of the composites for this more responsive system are already in place. Community organisations such as the charities I run, North London Cares and South London Cares, are already operating at the intersection of the public, private and third sectors to help individuals create relationships that bring practical and emotional interventions holistically, helping neighbours to navigate arcane government processes and to improve lives on a personal level.

But we need systemic change too. In a more fluid world, agencies across government need to innovate to be more in tune with people’s changing ways of living. Schools will need to re-prioritise personality and character – entrepreneurialism, resilience, disruption, confidence, trust – over traditional qualifications, equanimity and ‘hard’ skills, if they are to prepare people for the modern world. Resourcefulness and relationship advice, fearlessness, role-modelling and learning to learn should become key tenets in the curriculums of the future.

Luckily, many of these traits are on hand on the doorstep of community, and do not need to be bought in. Retired and semi-retired neighbours have a lifetime’s experience to share. They are often seeking new connections themselves, and a purpose to help them stay valued, vibrant and visible in a rapidly changing world. And many possess in abundance the qualities on which familiarity is built – play, humour, trust, time – and crave a way to put them to use.

To enable this new connecting state to operate, older people who are able, particularly those under 75, could be given locally devolved allowances in lieu of universal pensions, to be brought into schools, colleges and corporate workplaces to provoke, mentor and inspire the next generation – and to help create the mutual community connections that really matter for all, young and old.

Such a genuinely people-powered approach, in which Beveridge’s principle of contributory welfare is extended to participatory welfare for those who are able, which benefits the ‘giver’ as well as the ‘receiver’, would constitute a big culture shift for government. And of course, national and local government mustn’t rush to reform. If the NHS reorganisation has taught us anything, it’s that major changes need to be considered, costed and implemented cautiously at first. Government mustn’t replace its own public sector bureaucracy with a third sector bureaucracy. Voluntary and community organisations are rarely qualified to, nor do they have an interest in, delivering statutory services as they are currently conceived. And few have any desire to be ambushed into working beyond their means.

But trusting communities and individuals to organise their own welfare budgets around participation rather than payment could begin to solve the crisis of disconnection in our communities as well as with the state. With studies showing isolation can be as bad for people’s health as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day, new, community-based relationships would save money on health, social and mental health care by preventing deeper problems later on.

As government looks to a new operating model, of making connections rather than payments alone, and with prevention rather than cure as its core guiding principle, primary and early secondary interventions brokered by trusted community networks should replace the remote state clunk of the past. By enabling those relationships to flourish, across the present social and generational divisions, the Cameron government could achieve a modern welfare state that doesn’t just make life livable, but also helps make life worth living – less Disraeli’s ‘One Nation’, more Burke’s ‘little platoons’.