Before Christmas, Community made a £500 donation to charities in West Cumbria. Our local member Josh MacAlister writes about the donation and what it says about the role of unions in fighting the loneliness epidemic:
No one should be lonely at Christmas but isolation is a growing problem year round. Whether it’s elderly people who’ve lost a companion, or the children in care, too many people young and old are living lives of loneliness.
Family feuds aside, the festive period reminds many of us that it is connection – to relatives, friends and our neighbours – that makes such a big difference to our quality of life.
We are living in a time when record numbers of people are lonely and lack meaningful connections. In lots of communities, the congregation points for relationships have crumbled away- churches, clubs and trade unions. Robert Putnam wrote about this wrote about this trend over 20 years ago in his book Bowling Alone and isolation has only grown since.
Trade unions were powerful engines of social connection. When large parts of communities shared the same trade and therefore union membership, trade unions could create belonging, enable mutual aid and build solidarity. Trades halls were meeting points, union reps were community figures and the shared identity of membership counted for something. Those days are largely gone but unions can now play a different role in tackling loneliness and isolation.
“In the 20th century unions were anchors of social connection in places like steel towns – this project shows that unions still have a big role in building strong, connected communities.”
This is what Community is doing in Cumbria and I’m proud to have played a small part as a local Community member. West Cumbria is a proud former steel community and has retired members who at times might experience isolation – perhaps because of losing a loved one. It’s for this reason that the union has been looking for ways to back local organisations in former steel communities that are building connection.
That’s why Community has backed the charity Linking Lives in Cockermouth led by Terry Peate and supported by longstanding union member and former council leader Alan Smith. Linking Lives connects volunteer befrienders with people in the community who are lonely or isolated. On Christmas Day last year, they cooked for, and celebrated with, over 40 people.
Earlier this year, I published a national review into the children’s social care system that found the similar problems of too many young people leaving the care system isolated and lacking lifelong loving relationships. That’s why my review shone a spotlight on initiatives that build lasting connections and made recommendation to government to roll these out. Whether it’s Linking Lives or projects that connect care leavers, fantastic community organisations building connection are already out there but they need boosting.
Everyone needs to play a role in tackling the loneliness epidemic – from businesses through to government – and Community is showing how trade unions can play their part. Going further will also require political leadership from those who can champion these efforts and help deliver results for communities in places like West Cumbria. I’ll keep playing my part and I know Community will too.