It’s not to everyone’s taste, but I rejoice in the music of Christmas. And this year will be no exception: I fully intend to rock around the Christmas tree, and will undoubtedly be wishing you all a merry little Christmas. But as an Elvis Presley festive song reminds us, Christmas can be a profoundly lonely time for some. For me, it’s a wake-up call to count my blessings and give thanks for the loved ones I’m so fortunate to have at my side.
Someone recently said to me that “London can be the loneliest place in the world, because there are so many people but none of them talk to each other”. We see and interact with each other on the bus, out shopping, at the park, in the playground, at school and at work. But with the busy lives that so many of us lead it can be hard to get beyond the superficial. It leads me to wonder: how do we find depth and meaning when the busy-ness of life sets in?
London is a hive of activity. There’s always something “going on”. But our circumstances can lock us out, leaving us feeling left behind. Age, responsibilities, mobility and money are all factors that affect our capacity and confidence to engage with others and make connections. Having more or less of one of them dictates what we can do and can increase our isolation from the community around us. Polling shows 18 per cent of Londoners describe themselves as “lonely”. Around one in three of our fellow citizens say they sometimes lack companionship or support.
A decade of austerity has seen a marked change in the services available to us. Since 2010, more than 450 public libraries and 500 children’s centres have closed across the UK, with cuts also being made to day centres and community groups. A consequence of the cuts has been a loss of common space, leaving those least able to connect with ever fewer opportunities.
At Christmas, many of us pause to remember the man who, 2000 years ago, told people “come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, since you ask). A government that fails to fund the community spaces and activities that bring people together is one that fails to live up to this ideal. The new national government has given no indication that it is willing to address the cuts to local authority budgets that have had such an impact on local services. And while – as both Nye Bevan and Saint Augustine are quoted as saying – “private charity is no substitute for organised justice” – it is increasingly left to us as ordinary Londoners to plug the gap left by a withered state. Indeed, if we are to make social isolation a thing of the past, then that is what we must do.
In October, I brought a motion to the London Assembly on loneliness. The response to this has been inspiring, with community groups and charities getting in touch to tell me about the ways in which they are combatting loneliness across the capital. I want to thank them for their hard work and their desire to make a difference in the lives of others. The Mayor is also keen to address this. Crucially, he makes the link between “economic insecurity and social isolation, with food insecurity and fuel poverty significantly associated with a higher likelihood of social isolation”. He’s also said: “I want Londoners to be able to build meaningful and lasting relationships with each other, as equals, and to be active in their communities”.
The Mayor has rightly committed to funding projects across the city to help bring people together and support us in building new relationships. We can help in this work by thinking about opportunities around us to build communities and strengthen social bonds. This can be as simple as stopping to chat to your neighbours or making use of the volunteering days that many workplaces now offer. But for those of us involved with larger organisations, there’s the potential to do the bigger stuff too – making use of venues for instance to support English for Speakers of a Foreign Language groups, coffee mornings and social clubs for the elderly. There are a myriad of opportunities at our disposal if only we look for them.
To come back to where I started, I hope you can join me as (with apologies to Elton John) we step into Christmas together. In 2020 my New Year’s resolutions will see me looking for opportunities not just to connect, but to do what I can to build our community and give the gift of friendship and interaction to others too. These are difficult times for many Londoners. To coin a phrase, we truly are “all in it together”. This Christmas, I’d urge you to join me in my pledge and do what you can to help build your community too.
Jennette Arnold is London Assembly Member for the North East constituency, covering Islington, Hackney and Waltham Forest.
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