She says it’s all about smartphones and nothing to do with Tory policies
About 48 per cent of 18-24 year olds feel lonely. It’s lead to the creation of friendship apps for people based in the city. We’re constantly seeing that young people are locked out of the housing market and forced into short-term arrangements with rogue landlords. We’re paid less, and even if we do have money it’s harder to go out, as community hubs are shut down and the number of live music venues continues to shrink. Ethnic minorities are more likely to be struggling with loneliness, as are women. Both groups face more economic challenges, hate crimes, harassment, and more likely to suffer from mental health issues. Yet the government has been slow to act on falls in wages, insecure housing, xenophobic rhetoric, and cuts to services that may have offered face-to-face advice to alleviate these problems. If these people are feeling isolated, it's directly related to government (in)action.
Recently, the Conservative government announced that there will now be a Minister for Loneliness, following the findings of Jo Cox’s Loneliness Commission Report. Tracey Crouch, who also doubles up as the Minister for Sport and Civil Society, has been tasked with the job of measuring and tackling the needs of lonely people. But given that we’re living under a government that is known to be staunchly in favour of individualism, you can’t help but ask whether this “solution” is just a plaster over a much bigger problem the Tories have created. It feels like living inside a mafia movie: the mob go to local businesses and collect money from poor people, and in return offer protection. They are both the watchdog and the looming threat.
In an interview in 1987, Margaret Thatcher gave one of her most revealing sound bites when she said that there is no such thing as society. “I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand, ‘I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it’ (...) and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society?” she said. “There is no such thing!”
Over the phone with Crouch, she not only seems incapable of making the links between her party’s increasingly isolating policies and the epidemic of loneliness, but also of remembering that she, and most of the Conservatives, are still dishing out Thatcher’s legacy.
What do you think is missing from conversations about the loneliness epidemic?
Tracey Crouch: There isn't one single issue or solution. I think that we need a holistic approach to tackle this. We also need to be careful not to push people into categories of loneliness. Just because you're alone, doesn't mean you're lonely. You may well be surrounded by a lot of friends and family, but still, feel quite isolated.
How's it been since you entered the role? What have you been working on specifically?
Tracey Crouch: It has been amazing, actually. I had so many responses from around the world, that have been incredibly positive. It's clearly a topic that affects us globally.
Why have the government decided to tackle this now?
Tracey Crouch: Well the decision actually came out of the Jo Cox commission’s recommendations. The commission was set up after Jo was murdered. They did a year-long study of loneliness, with lots of research and analysis into the issue. One of the recommendations that came out was that the government employed a lead minister, to tackle loneliness and also to deliver a strategy.
And can you give much away of that strategy yet?
Tracey Crouch: We're very much at the start of the journey. The commission itself recognised that this was a generational challenge, this is not something that is going to be tackled overnight. Not least because of the complexity around it. There isn't one single reason to feel lonely or to suffer from social isolation and there is no one single solution. So we will take our time to come up with achievable and practical solutions.
Some stats suggest that 48 per cent of 18-24-year-olds feel lonely. What message would you like to get to young people who feel left behind?
Tracey Crouch: I think, in part, that is because of the rise of technology and changes in the way people interact with each other. Technology can be a solution even to combat people's isolation, but for some, it can be the cause.
“You could equally say I'm a Minister for Happiness, 'cause effectively that's what I'm trying to achieve” – Tracey Crouch, Minister for Loneliness
Well, also certain sections of society just feel marginalised. For example, women and ethnic minorities are also significantly overrepresented in loneliness figures. The same demographics more likely to have lower pay, suffer from mental health complications, hate crimes, and so on.
Tracey Crouch: We're taking a wide holistic approach. As you rightly point out, in the past we've looked very much through the perspective of just one part of society. Therefore we may have ignored other parts of society like youngsters, people with disabilities or mental health conditions. There will be solutions that we've been providing to communities up down the country already, and what we want to see is whether or not we can grow them into larger-scale projects.
It's a social issue, but it also stems from policies that have failed to tackle things like insecure housing, long working hours, things that make us all feel divorced from our surroundings.
Tracey Crouch: Yeah, well I get completely focused on the sports and culture aspect as that’s my job, but we have a ministry of housing, communities, local government who are part of that conversation as well. I have civil servants from across the whole of Whitehall including the houses of parliament, working on this issue. It will be working across the whole of government.
Isn't the fact that we have to create a Minister for Loneliness quite sad? What does that say about where we are as a country?
Tracey Crouch: Well I don't think this is a new phenomenon, this is something that's been talked about for some time. Before I was a minister, I used to speak about loneliness a bit from the older person's perspective, so this is not something that is new. What is new is that it's been recognised as a health concern. There's a lot of work going on around the world on happiness, which is effectively the same thing. Goldie Hawn did a speech recently in Dubai where she praised the UK government for appointing a minister on this and she was speaking at a conference on happiness. So you could equally say I'm a Minister for Happiness, cause effectively that's what I'm trying to achieve.
Is there a danger you're not looking at your party's legacy here – Thatcher famously said that there is no such thing as society–
Tracey Crouch: She didn't actually say that, you know that don't you? So I suggest you look up her quote because that's actually not true.
It is. Also, a culture of individualism has been fostered while the Tory government has been in power. Do you not think this is merely a plaster for things that have happened under your party's watch?
Tracey Crouch: I think it is really important to remember that the Jo Cox commission (was) set up on a cross-party basis, and we haven't gone for that partisan line that you've just questioned me on. The solution to this is just working together, across all political parties, and coming up with solutions across all different divides.
But is it even possible to alleviate loneliness without dramatically reorganising society as it is?
Tracey Crouch: Well, I think society has many parts that are actually brilliant, and they come together across the country. The response that I had to the announcements was incredible, in terms of the very large number of organisations that work in partnership with lots of different businesses, charities, or local authorities to come together to tackle isolation within communities. So my role, and that of the whole of the parliament, is we have to champion these causes and make sure we can find some really good examples of how we can grow them into much bigger projects.
Yes well, I hope you find what is making people feel like they aren't part of a society anymore.
Tracey Crouch: Brilliant. Thank you very much.