The election result could be changed by people shifting their opinions on specific issues, which is why it is worth engaging others on issues you care about. But what if you’re starting from very different positions?
Sinead Peacock-Brennan and Laura McGrath
It feels like this election is taking place in polarised - and impenetrable - bubbles. The Brexit referendum has reorganised British politics, not least through providing powerful new social identity categories of ‘Remainer’ and ‘Leaver’, then forcing people to both pick and defend a side. Despite the EU being conspicuously absent from public priorities in 2015, one fallout from the Brexit vote has been a fracturing of existing political tribes. Speculation abounds over how ‘Labour Leavers’ and ‘Tory Remainers’ could upturn long held safe seats and reshape our political landscape.
Rather than fluidity in politics opening new spaces for dialogue and understanding, our changing political times have instead entrenched division. Moral and emotive language, of treachery and surrender, in a social media landscape, which reinforces our existing views rather than challenging them, has only acted to heighten hostility. Throw into this mix the impact of a decade of funding cuts, the climate emergency, floods, accusations of racism in both Corbyn's Labour and Johnson's Conservatives, and no wonder it can seem harder than ever to listen to, never mind understand, people with different views.
At Psychologists for Social Change, we use psychological research to inform political debate, policy and social action. We have highlighted the damaging impact of austerity on mental health and examined alternatives such as universal basic income or services. We have also critically analysed the ‘happiness’ or ‘wellbeing’ agenda in British politics, as well as considered what better education and children’s mental health services might look like.
These briefing papers and commentary might inform your conversations with friends, family and colleagues in the run up to the election. In these divided times, however, we realise it is not enough to work out what the issues are and where you stand. What happens if you realise mid conversation that you are in a different bubble to the person you are talking to? You might shut down and decide that it is a lost cause, or engage in a heated discussion which leaves you both irate and frustrated, holding even more firmly onto your existing beliefs. Or is there another approach? One that encourages discussion, and could possibly build consensus for political change? Here are some ideas.
A behaviour change programme minus the behaviour change: What happens when health services are run as businesses?
In austere times, outsourcing health services to private providers is becoming more common. To ensure service-users aren’t short changed and public spending isn’t wasted, commissioners need to take a much more hands-on approach
Changing eating habits is often an element of a behaviour change programme
Recently, I spent a period working as a clinical psychologist in a health and well-being service, commissioned by a local authority in response to the UK’s obesity rate. The service is run by a small private organisation and was set up to promote healthy lifestyle behaviours. One of its aims is to support people to achieve a healthy weight to reduce the risk of preventable weight-related diseases and the human and economic costs associated with these. It does this with programmes designed to change people’s behaviours around food and eating and increase their physical activity.
Aspects of the service were very encouraging. The team deployed creative ways of engaging local communities, statutory services and charities, ensuring a steady stream of suitable people referred to the service. It had established a strong presence in the community by taking part in health and wellbeing campaigns. The programmes were delivered by an enthusiastic though overstretched team that strongly abided by the “code” of the healthy lifestyle behaviours they promoted. A particularly exciting aspect of the service was that commissioners had recognised the role psychological and psychosocial factors play in the development and maintenance of obesity and behaviour change – hence the opening for a psychologist. I was excited to get stuck into my role, supporting this already vibrant service by integrating psychological theory and practice into the service delivery.
Alas, my enthusiasm was short-lived. As I gained insights into how the service functioned, a nagging sense of unease took hold. A feeling, I now think, that stemmed from a tension created by the outsourcing of public services to private providers. It is hard to believe that the consequences of this tension are limited to this particular service - after all, in current economic times, this model of service procurement is becoming the norm. In fact, while writing this article, I had numerous conversations with colleagues working within the public and education sectors who found my experiences resonated with their own. This further convinced me to share my experiences as I hope they will stir up a further discussion.