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Monday 9 December 2019

General election 2019

The 100-year life: what’s on your mind?

For the fourth week of our election tour, we visited Grimsby, North Devon, Birmingham and Uxbridge, and talked about young people, old people, everyone in between – and the services they need   

By Tortoise editors

For the fourth and penultimate week of our election tour, we returned to Grimsby, North Devon, Birmingham and Uxbridge. As in previous weeks, the ThinkIns we held were focused on one of Tortoise’s five main themes – in this case, The 100-year life; which is to say, the requirements we have from birth to grave, and how the state should cater for them.



This week, Grimsby only wanted to talk about the election. Tortoise members in Grimsby have got the fear. A traditional Labour stronghold that voted 71 per cent to leave the EU, polls now suggest that it could elect a Conservative candidate next week. But not everyone has made up their minds. Mark Hodson, a local architect, said: “Voting used to be dead easy. You’d look at manifestos and think about your background and culture. The reason why I am confused and I feel quite anxious is that it’s difficult to get through the shoutiness and find some concrete reasons to vote for people.”

Key points from this week included:

  • The NHS. The row over whether the Conservatives want to include the NHS in trade deals is cutting through, sparking real fear and distrust from all sides.
  • The media rows. Boris Johnson refusing to go to the climate change debate with Channel 4 was described as “a kick in the teeth for millennials”.

Most of the conversation focussed on the difficulty of deciding how to vote next week. An intergenerational thread ran through that.

Sybil, 76, runs a stall selling children’s cardigans, hats and booties in East Marsh. “I voted to come out. I’d change my mind if I voted now. My granddaughter works in industry in Scunthorpe. She kept saying to me, grandma, we don’t want to come out. It’s bad for business. She persuaded me.

“My father always said you never change your politics. You can change, but you don’t change your politics. Through thick and thin I’ve stayed Labour. I can’t imagine Grimsby another way. I wish there hadn’t been a referendum.”

Billy Dasein, who works with the charity East Marsh United, said: “The crash in 2008 was just papered over, but it’s still there and reverberating. Brexit was a part of that. It feels like something big is coming. It feels like something dark is coming. But there is hope. I think we’ve got a really woke, more politicised younger generation. What younger people are saying about the climate emergency fills my heart.”

Phoebe Mumby, 17, is one of those he nods to as he says it. She says she’s frustrated at the media for not treating the election more seriously and cites a story that received wide coverage of how Johnson takes his scones. “The press and the BBC need to take responsibility in this,” she says. Phoebe’s also frustrated because she’s following the election but can’t vote. She turns 18 on 13 December, one day late.

Tortoise will be returning to Grimsby once more during the election campaign.

10 December, 6.30pm, book here.

Polly Curtis


North Devon

Against a backdrop of office Christmas parties and what looked like a school prom, our third and final ThinkIn in Barnstaple, North Devon was full of warmth – and a real sense of camaraderie.

As one of our members put it in an email after the meeting: “Striking thing we all said afterwards is that GPs, doctors, teachers, parents, students all seem to be fighting exactly the same battle – just in utter isolation. It’s only once we listen to others, in the sort of environment you guys set up, that we realise it.”

Key points:

  • Services in silos. Funding cuts are transforming how healthcare is operating in North Devon – and this is clearest in how children with mental health problems are treated. One woman, a mother of two autistic children, spoke movingly of her struggles to get access to the support they need. The local service, once run by Virgin, used to be good, she said. Now there are waiting lists of two years. A GP in the room spoke of a system graded by severity, in which many young people are simply “not bad enough” to quality for support. And teachers – already over-worked and under-trained in this area – talked of struggling children (exhausted and anxious by exams) falling through the cracks. The system is broken, many agreed. Nothing is joined up anymore. And, as a result, the quality of care is crumbling.
  • Outcomes over all. Among the doctors and health workers in the room there was agreement that those in frontline services are the least empowered – and an overwhelming focus on outcomes has led to a demotion of qualities that are harder to quantify, such as closeness, continuity and trust. This was echoed by the teachers in the room: class numbers have gone up, and teachers have fewer hours to deliver qualifications. One teacher spoke of retiring early, because he was “sick of implementing government cuts”.
  • How to fix it? There were lots of ideas in the room. Universal basic income and the four-day week were both raised as convincing ways to combat an exhausted, unhappy workforce. But, even more ambitiously, we talked about how our democracy may just be wired wrong. We are stuck in a series of short-term, outcome-obsessed governments that are not equipped to think about the bigger structures of our lives. One woman asked what our health service and our working weeks would look like if they were not shaped by transitory politicians.

And, finally, to the election: many in the room agreed that this campaign feels dirty – tricksier – than 2017, and it is breeding a sense of unease and distrust. In the swing seat of North Devon, tactical voting is a real option. But in the room, particularly among the young participants, there was a clear message: vote for what you believe, not just to stop Brexit or Boris Johnson.

It was a moment of optimism that found support across the room. Vote in what you believe and it will trickle down, somewhere, and could still prompt small change. It was a hopeful place to end a rich and illuminating three weeks of conversation.

Basia Cummings



John Lewis speaking at the Birmingham Thinkin

A chilly church hall off the Yardley Road – but plenty of political heat in our third campaign visit to the nation’s second city.

Key points:

  • At last, politicisation. This felt like the week in which the campaign had finally cut through to voters, and it was fear for the NHS, coinciding with Trump’s visit, that had done the trick. Martha, a Polish-born UK resident for 15 years, now suffering from cancer, spoke of her terror that the medicines keeping her alive would become unaffordable.
  • The health service. A powerful sense of realism that longevity alone meant fundamental changes to the NHS. Rohit, a GP, said that primary care was now at breaking point as ever more responsibilities were transferred from hospitals to local surgeries.
  • What to do? Scorn for the Conservatives’ games with simple arithmetic – the fiction of 40 new hospitals, 50,000 new nurses. But little confidence in Corbyn’s costings, or in Labour’s ability to pay for the public service investments it has promised. Interestingly for a solidly Labour constituency (Jess Phillips’s), limited faith in the capacity of income tax to bring in much revenue. Enthusiasm for a windfall hypothecated health tax on big tech companies.
  • Social care. Disdain for the way in which the issue has been more or less shelved since Theresa May’s 2017 debacle. Ann described visiting a physio ward that had been repurposed, in desperation, for dementia patients. Nigel said that longevity meant that the old assumptions about inheritance and “wealth cascading down the generations” would have to be adjusted: “My assets should be used to pay for my care, rather than the state. Children have to realise they won’t inherit so much.”
  • The intergenerational contract. Some regret that younger people took so much for granted and were blissfully unaware of all the problems of the 1970s (strikes, inflation, shoddy nationalised utilities). But this was not expressed with bitterness – and was matched by a recognition that every generation forgets the adversities faced by its predecessors.
  • The snowflake myth. In fact, considerable admiration was expressed for the way in which the young are adapting to the insecurities and instabilities of modern life. Jonathan, a lawyer, said that his younger colleagues were actively seeking flexible working or, say, three months’ leave to learn a language – with a confidence that he would not have felt at their age: “These kids are not frightened.” Ann said that her grandchildren, all in their twenties, were managing admirably in a world with less certainty and security. John said that the younger generation did not judge success entirely in material terms – they sought quality of life, wellbeing and fulfilling education with greater zest than their parents.

There was also strong disapproval for Boris Johnson’s response to the terrorist attack and his attempt to shirk responsibility for the policies that might have led to Usman Khan’s release. Ann (a Tory): “Who’s been running the show?”

Who, indeed?

Matt d’Ancona



By contrast with Birmingham Yardley, a warm church hall in Uxbridge where we talked about intergenerational fairness, housing and social care.

  • Generational breakdown. When the question arose, “Do you think your children’s prospects will be as good as yours (especially when it comes to housing)?” only one dissenting hand went up. Overwhelmingly, we thought that younger generations will struggle to have the same opportunities, and particularly the same sense of security, as baby boomers have had.
  • Pocketbook pressures. Families are making adjustments to cope with the new reality. The cash machine at the Bank of Mum & Dad has been coughing up fivers to get children on the housing ladder; children in their late twenties are back home after university; a son has moved to the Peak District to find somewhere affordable to live. The question is whether it should be left to families to deal with the changes we’re seeing – lower wages for young people, higher rents, and higher house prices – or whether we need a response driven by the state.
  • Locked-up wealth. We talked about how we think about our houses – homes or nest eggs? – and there was a real sense of untapped potential in the conversation: people whose children have left home rattling round in too many rooms (“…but it’s my home and I like it. Am I really supposed to move somewhere smaller?”); all that unproductive wealth locked up in the value of our houses.
  • Getting on the ladder. There was a recognition of good fortune from people who’d benefited from huge house-price rises, but also a recollection that it had been a struggle to get on the housing ladder (“the mortgage rate was 11 per cent!”). Yes, baby boomers have been lucky, but the wealth they’ve built up hasn’t just dropped from the sky. It’s involved hard work, too.
  • The limits of taxation. Should we tax wealth, especially property, to even out the disparities between generations? Yes – cautiously – in theory, but politically? No chance.
  • Social care. If the test of intergenerational fairness is a society which offers opportunities to its young and high-quality care to its elderly, the key word was dignity. It’s a quality lacking both in care for old people in their homes and, too often, in residential care. We need more money to fix social care – but where do we find it? We don’t have the answer yet.

Ceri Thomas

Photographs  by Tom Pilston for Tortoise