Seema Kennedy MP: Chronic loneliness as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day
Conservative MP Seema Kennedy spoke to PoliticsHome about the cross-party commission to tackle loneliness, which was originally started by Jo Cox.
Jo Cox and Seema Kennedy both attended the same Cambridge University college in the early 1990s. But they barely spoke until the early part of 2016 when the Labour MP approached Ms Kennedy in the House of Commons.
Ms Cox asked the Conservative MP if she would be interested in joining a cross-party commission to tackle loneliness.
Ms Kennedy had become aware of the problem – and the associated issues of Alzheimer’s and dementia – through volunteer work before she joined Parliament.
“I was just one day looking at it and reading a report and came across the campaign to end loneliness. This was years ago, back in 2012, 2013. And they’d been going about a year or so and the statistics are just frightening. Chronic loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, it can increase your blood pressure, it can increase the incidence of falls, it is a contributing factor to dementia. People who are chronically lonely are more likely to be admitted into residential care, it’s a leading cause of depression which was a cause of suicide. I could see it was a moral problem but I didn’t know what a bad public health problem it was.”
And so, Ms Kennedy immediately agreed to become a part of the commission and she and Ms Cox began working together.
“We started off and we had our first meeting,” Ms Kennedy said. “We were getting on pretty well and we had a plan of action and then she was murdered.”
After Ms Cox was killed by Thomas Mair in the week before the EU referendum, Ms Kennedy was determined to continue with the commission as part of the Labour MP’s legacy.
“We had to carry on. For the first few weeks it was very hard because people had worked with her, and her friends, we were very upset.”
Ms Kennedy realised that she needed to get another Labour MP involved in the project.
“Rachel Reeves had spoken very powerfully when we had all met on the Monday after Jo’s death so I thought ‘I’ll approach Rachel and see what she says’. And so poor Rachel, she was just in the Members’ cloakroom and we had never spoken before and I just went up to her and said ‘you don’t know me but’ and I explained and she sort of said ‘ok yes’ and she was rushing off to vote and I emailed her and a couple of weeks later she was involved.”
By summer recess, Ms Reeves was co-chairwoman of the project, renamed the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. They are working with the Jo Cox Foundation, an umbrella organisation which is continuing work which Ms Cox campaigned on, such as refugees, hope not hate, loneliness and Syria.
Ms Reeves and Ms Kennedy are the facilitators of the commission but it will be the organisations themselves which work together.
The organisations involved – Age UK, Alzheimer's, the Campaign to end Loneliness, to name a few – will be given a six-week spotlight to highlight the research they’ve done. At the end of 2017 the commission will publish its manifesto.
The commission will launch on 31 January, notably after Christmas when there is a huge amount of publicity regarding loneliness. Kennedy says people can forget about loneliness outside of December.
“Obviously Christmas is a real focal point for people and we have the great campaign last year and then Age UK again have launched a campaign in the last few days. No one should have no one for Christmas but you’ve got to remember that after Christmas people are still lonely but there’s less attention on them.”
Ms Kennedy believes the commission will highlight the importance of networks being built up to address loneliness.
“A lot of what we’re thinking about is how do you build up resilience and networks while you're younger and get through transition points younger in your life so that when you are of old age, you might not be working, you might be widowed, you might be a carer and you might have built in that resilience and network to stop yourself being as lonely in older age.”
“A lot of the things that take place at the moment are at a local level, so encouraging people in midlife or older age who are about to retire to take up volunteering positions, so they are going out and befriending an older person but also they are stopping themselves being lonely.
“Also this Men in Sheds programme, you’re not saying ‘oh come because you’re lonely’; you’re saying ‘come to have a chat and talk about woodwork and things like that’. There’s loads of practical examples, lunch clubs, but it’s not just that local action, it’s also how we plan our towns and cities, how we look at health services, how we plan our education. But looking at it across the life course, that’s what we hope will be a bit more unique compared to other campaigns.”
Ms Kennedy concludes by saying although continuing without Ms Cox is “really, really painful”, she is really glad she was able to work with her.
“It’s changed how I view my life and changed how I view my colleagues because there is more in common, most of the 650 of us just want to get stuff done because we love the places we represent and that cross-party working happens a lot in parliament and doesn’t get reported. The more in common theme is what we should all be holding onto.”
Seema Kennedy is a Conservative MP for South Ribble