Public services don’t need to be transactional. Let’s not be afraid to talk about adding ‘love’ to the typical public service relationship, says Dr. Jennifer Sinclair in Australia.
By Dr. Jennifer Sinclair, sociologist and writer
An extraordinary thing happened in Britain as they geared up for the election last May – people were starting to talk about love. We have become so used to the rational language of efficiency and economics in politics that the very idea of love and politics comes as a shock. Jon Cruddas, who led Labour’s policy review in Britain, notably said in a speech that politicians don’t talk enough about love. At the same time, the first of a four-part BBC series titled ‘What Britain Wants‘ was released, focusing on the topic of love. Drawing its inspiration from former New Zealand Prime Minister Norman Kirk, the series revisited a claim he made in the 1970s that people don’t want much:
“They want ‘someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for’.”
The point Kirk was making is that relationships give meaning to life, perhaps above all else. It’s an idea that is slowly gathering momentum and attention in politics, at least in Britain. Connection with other people is what makes life worth living for most of us and yet our entire system of politics, and perhaps society too, is fundamentally inarticulate about this central human truth and desire. We’re happy to talk endlessly about sex but rather uncomfortable when it comes to love.
“Relationships give meaning to our lives. They bind us all together into society and give us our sense of belonging. We are literally nothing without them.”
The ‘What Britain wants’ series was an attempt to ask some basic questions about what sort of society the British want, what they are trying to achieve as a society and what makes for a good life; the kinds of questions we would hope and expect our politicians to think long and hard about and would be able to give an account of in plain language if asked. But these are questions that tend to get lost in the noise of the 24/7 news cycle and the three-year election cycle.
Mass disengagement and disillusionment with mainstream politics is surely partly because politics seems remote from these important kinds of questions and from people’s daily lives and struggles. No doubt many Australians yearn to have similar discussions to the British about what matters (ABC take note) and to have politicians engaged in discussions about a meaningful life (ditto) and how that influences policy (ditto). Mention the word ‘love’ in a sincere and authentic way and people’s interest is immediately aroused because it signifies openness and connection and perhaps vulnerability to another.
In the same speech, Cruddas said that:
“…Nothing else matters more in life than secure and loving relationships…relationships give meaning to our lives. They bind us all together into society and give us our sense of belonging. We are literally nothing without them.”
The speech was given to the Relationship Alliance so its perhaps not surprising that Cruddas spoke about relationships, but it is remarkable that Cruddas had the strength and courage to say the word ‘love’ out loud and in public and that he chose it as a main topic of his speech along with work.
Just how giving emphasis to love and relationships might be translated into policies and practice is an interesting question. Again in Britain, social entrepreneurs like Hilary Cottam, founder of Participle, an organisation that develops innovative social services, have begun to lead the way by establishing programs designed to help people in communities connect with each other and build supportive relationships. Participle have pioneered programs that connect older people to each other, reduce loneliness and enable them to contribute and share what they have. This sort of program is not about familial love or romantic love but about love nonetheless, a love that Jon Cruddas defines as “the sense of self we get by living with and for other people.”
The social, psychological and physical health benefits of these sorts of programs seem obvious but apparently it is a revolutionary idea to put people and relationships at the heart of public services. There are economic benefits too – if people are connected to others they’re more like to remain active and engaged with life in general and less likely to fall ill. They’re less dependent on the state and have more capacity to help each other.
Jaded cynics might dismiss the emerging discussion about love as recycled hippy talk from the sixties. Such criticism would be both lazy and wrong. The love that is being talked about in 2015 has to do with supportive and reciprocal relationships, not sexual freedom. As Cruddas says, liberty and equality have long been on the agenda and perhaps it is time for more discussion about love and fraternity.
Read “Don’t Pass Me By”, by Hilary Cottam and Jon Cruddas, calling for a 21st century welfare state that puts relationships at its heart.
Dr Jennifer Sinclair is a sociologist and writer. She co-founded the Sociology of Emotion and Affect thematic group of The Australian Sociological Association.
Image by Id Iom, via Flickr Creative Commons.