19 November 2020

Community spirit versus economic worries and damaged political trust: Talk/together in the North-east

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"If it wasn't for the community spirit in Hartlepool at the moment, we would have a bigger crisis than what we already have." Jill Rutter reports from our Talk/together discussions in the North-east of England, where worries about jobs and the economy and distrust of politicians were tempered by community spirit and lockdown stoicism.

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Steve Ballinger
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Talk/together’s discussions in the North East took place in the week that the Government announced the second lockdown. The impacts of COVID-19 on the economy and people’s mental health were the most prominent issues in these conversations, with members of the public from Durham, Newcastle, Sunderland and Teesside. Despite these hardships there was a sense that local communities are supporting each other, a finding supported by recent polling by ICM for Talk Together. One participant in Hartlepool said:

“People who have lost their jobs, who are on Universal Credit, are just generally struggling to feed themselves and to feed their families. And there’s a lot of businesses who, despite the fact that they’re struggling, have stepped in and kind of done what maybe the government should be doing – which is quite nice to see. I think if it wasn’t for the community spirit in Hartlepool at the moment, we would have a bigger crisis than what we already have.”

There were people in the discussions who had lost their jobs, as well as those who had been furloughed. Worries about future unemployment and the economy and poverty were a central theme of the discussions in a region that, even before COVID-19, has experienced Britain’s highest levels of unemployment and under employment.

Many people have memories of the 1980s and 1990s. In 1993 male unemployment levels were 18% of the working-age population. (Today the male unemployment level in Britain is 5.2%). Many people felt that COVID-19 would widen the North-South divide and levels of poverty. This in turn would impact of people’s social interactions. Although community spirit was strong, we were told that crime would rise and that “People don’t listen and trust each other where there are big economic differences.”

Most people had accepted that this Christmas would be different and that family gatherings would be small.

“We’ve got Zoom, we’ve got Facebook Messenger. And that’s how we do it [Christmas] in these times.”

We also asked if the new lockdown felt different to the first one in spring. Generally, people felt that the spring lockdown was a sudden shock and marked a rapid change in lifestyles, whereas now people have become used to the restrictions. This was balanced with views that winter lockdown would have a greater impact on people’s mental health because the cold, dark nights meant that people were less likely to turn to nature and outdoor exercise to help them deal with depression, stress and anxiety:

“We were blessed in the summer that we had a very nice summer and it was easy to walk. So I think that getting out in nature is very helpful to mental health, and quite good. However, for me, personally, I had a lot more change in the first lockdown. We kind of went from normal life to a very sudden change, whereas now we’ve still been very restricted for months.”

People had strong opinions about the Government’s handling of the virus. We were struck by the very low levels of trust in politicians and political institutions. There was anger that politicians and their advisers had been seen as ignoring their own public health guidance: in all three groups Dominic Cummings’ trip to the North East was given as an example of this “one rule for them and one rule for us” view. Politicians were seen as self-interested and out-of-touch and there were a number of people in the discussions who did not vote because they did not see voting as worthwhile. Some people found the tribal nature of politics and politicians’ behaviour in Parliament to be off-putting, as that was not how people conducted themselves in real life:

“I think a lot of politicians are just completely out of touch with reality. I don’t think they really understand what poverty means. I don’t think they’ve spent enough time in the North East to see what’s going on; to see the mental health crisis; to see how children are struggling in school as well.”

Back in March, the Government had quite high levels of public trust and support, but as our recent polling shows, this has now fallen. The COVID-19 crisis has shone a light on public trust in political institutions, which has always tended to be lower among young people, women and those in low income groups. Trust gives our democratic institutions the legitimacy they need to operate, as well as contributing to a reservoir of good will needed when politicians make mistakes. Political trust is also needed if people are to comply voluntarily with regulations, such COVID-19 public health measures. Where political trust is low, people are more likely to turn to divisive conspiracy theories.

In many of the discussions we have held, people have put forward ideas to make politics better and less divisive. We have had suggestions that MPs should be free to vote for what they support and should not be constrained by party loyalties. One participant had taken part in a citizens’ assembly and spoke about how it took divisive politics out of decision-making. Clearly, fostering greater political trust is an important aspect of bringing people together and an area we are exploring in Talk/together.

Talk/together is the UK’s biggest-ever conversation about what divides and unites us, and what could bring our society together in these difficult times. It is coordinated by British Future as part of /Together, a new coalition of household names like the NHS and the Scouts and local organisations from across the UK. Please share your views by completing our short online survey at www.together.org.uk