Labour’s Public Health Manifesto: Implications for the General Election

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Curious about Labour’s Public Health Manifesto, and what it means for the General Election? Our public affairs expert takes a look.

Public Health policies don’t win elections, but they do give the parties an opportunity to show the electorate that they are in touch with their lives and prudent with their money. It is no great surprise that the Manifesto opens with the role of public health in ensuring the long-term survival of the NHS, tying it in with the one issue where Labour’s pre-election narrative is strongest.

Food:

  • Andy Burnham has hinted at nutrient limits for products aimed at children for some time, so it is disappointing to see so little detail about how these will be established. The concept of ‘substantially marketed’ is vague, whilst it’s hard to imagine how such limitations would sidestep EU single market rules.
  • Labour acknowledge the need to “work at EU level to introduce traffic-light labelling of packaged food”, but there is unlikely to be much appetite for this in Brussels. Last October, the European Commission ruled that the traffic light scheme was ‘simplistic’ while revisiting food labeling so soon after the existing legislation has come into force (Dec 2014), hardly sits well with its commitment to cut down on red tape.
  • The inclusion of a 9pm advertising watershed was always likely, given that advertising and promotions is the area where the Responsibility Deal food group has made the least progress since 2010. However the Manifesto commits only to further research/exploring of options rather than a commitment to implement.
  • The absence of a fat tax will disappoint, but not surprise, campaigners. Andy Burnham’s opposition to fiscal measures is well-known.

Alcohol

  • The commitment to making public health a licensing objective is arguably the area of greatest policy difference between Labour and the Coalition. Such a step was among the recommendations of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Alcohol Misuse in its own manifesto, and is already in place in Scotland. It could impact on local licensing regarding numbers and types of alcohol outlets, opening hours and conditions of sale.
  • Like the Coalition, Labour seems to have looked into the introduction of minimum alcohol pricing and decided against it. The fact that the bulk of the Manifesto concentrates on high-strength cider shows how little room for manoeuvre – and indeed public appetite – there is for policy in this area.

Physical Activity

  • According to the Manifesto, Labour will reverse the Coalition’s removal of two hours’ physical activity per week from the National Curriculum, although this is a ‘goal’ rather than a target/quota. Physical activity will likely feature in the Conservative manifesto, and the Olympic legacy in particular a notable battleground in the run-up to May.

Tobacco

  • Labour commits in the Manifesto to the immediate introduction of standardised packaging of tobacco products, but given that the Coalition says that it is already ‘minded’ to introduce such a policy, subject to the recent consultation, it is likely that the main parties will cancel one another out here.

Policy Making

  • The Manifesto is clear that the Responsibility Deal ‘isn’t working’, but not about what policy mechanism will replace it. The Food Standards Agency will not get powers over nutrition back under Labour (as many had hoped), whilst dialogue with the Department of Health, representatives from the food industry, academic experts and campaigners on developing the best approaches to implementing measures (on obesity) hardly heralds a revolutionary new approach.
  • The tone of the document is balanced. There are references to the sinister ‘vested interests’ bending the Coalition’s ear, but the document also acknowledges that some food companies are ‘trying to do the right thing’. There is also a greater emphasis on people taking responsibility for their own health, and a clear acknowledgement that legislation ‘is not the answer to everything’.

Implications for the election:

  • It can hardly be said that the Manifesto is the ‘New Approach’ that it purports to be. For a start, many of the commitments are to further investigate rather than make policy – the impact of alcohol promotion in sport, role of Public Health England, the 9pm Watershed and the health impact of e-cigarettes.
  • Jeremy Hunt already has already responded to the Manifesto and defended his record on public health, tweeting: – adult and child obesity rates down; alcohol-related harm down; lowest ever smoking rates. These downward trends, added to the economic straightjacket, explain the limits on what is feasible for all policy makers in this field.
  • Labour has probably done enough to avoid widespread accusations of nanny stateism, but there is also little enough to really capture the public imagination. From Labour’s point of view, if the health debate stays focused on the NHS, it will be no bad thing.

The Liberal Democrats’ public health commitments have hitherto lead with mental health – a maximum 18 week waiting time target for people with mental health conditions, and a two week target for young people experiencing psychosis. UKIP meanwhile oppose plain cigarette packaging, warning labels on alcohol and – predictably – migrants with HIV from entering the country.