Optimism is stronger close to home than at a national level, says new Demos study

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Interesting project from the classic centrist think-tank Demos, looking at the landscape of optimism in the UK - where it peaks and troughs, what generates it, what could sustain it.

One of their findings is super-relevant to our superpowered localism agenda - their claim that "optimism is stronger close to home than at a national level". See an excerpt from the report (available here) below:

Generally, we found, people are more optimistic when it comes to themselves and their family, compared to the future of the UK in general. Across almost every domain, when people were asked about the prospects for themselves or their family, they gave a far more positive response than when asked about the country - with their local area, community or neighbourhood falling in the middle.

For instance, in terms of short term health prospects, half (56%) of UK adults are optimistic about their own and their family’s health, while 40% are optimistic about the health of people in their local area and only 29% are optimistic about the health of people in the UK in general.

Mapping net optimism across each of the eight domains across the personal, local and national, we are able to create “wheels of optimism”, in which this trend is clear. Each net optimism ranking is marked on a spoke of the wheel; the total area covered by the diagram gives an indication of overall optimism at each level.

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What can explain this? Could it be that national media is all about the parliamentary and corporate drama of clashing elites - which it's quite easy to imagine reduces one's sunny disposition? And that local media all too often goes with the same "if it bleeds it leads" approach? (See the Fallows' point about local media in our post the other day). 

The generational gulf (using the same categories of measuring happiness above) is also pretty striking: 

There is also a closing section, titled "building an age of relationships", which tries to imagine what processes would lead to "national renewal" (Britain is the nation presumed of course, on this multinational island). They are:-

  • Be rooted in the personal and local: without connection and relationships within and between communities, we cannot rebuild our shared sense of purpose and optimism. This means starting where people are: the strongest feelings of hope for the future are those attached to family and community. If we strengthen those connections and increase the times and places where communities come together collaboratively, we can bring to an end the age of outrage - replacing it with an age of relationships.

  • Be relentlessly ambitious about investment in the services that give people faith in Britain: to feel upbeat about our national journey, people need to see the services they care about thriving. Investment in our NHS pays a double dividend: delivering not just better health and wellbeing, but a sense of honour and identity about Britain and what we stand for.

  • Stretch beyond “red book” issues to those that speak to identity and pride: the era of fiscal consolidation since 2008 has led to an extraordinary focus by politicians on policies of tax, spend and benefits. The numbers matter: the money a family has to spend has a huge impact on their living standards, and financial matters will always be at the core of a government’s agenda. But national optimism has its roots in ideas and identity signifiers that go far beyond cash. Our research should encourage politicians and policy makers of all kinds to think creatively about initiatives that build communities, increase our access to public space, celebrate our culture and heritage, and bring the nation together in common purpose.

Our response would be to take the last sentence, and replace "the nation" with "localities, cities and regions". Or whatever level and scale of "We" allows a fresh language of political priorities to develop.

We'd be very sceptical that the range of horizontal and bottom-up community practice that we are mapping and celebrating in A/UK could - or even should - be wrapped up into any "national" (or to be precise, national party-political) story.

That may emerge from a vigorous localism - for example, a "merrie, patchwork" English identity, celebrating local diversity and eccentricity. But better that such a thing arises out of local experiment and acts of belonging, and then encourages new structures of democracy that are subsidiary or federated. To be imposed from on high by any set of opportunist political myth-makers would not be good. 

But in any case, an interesting project to keep an eye on.