Cutting down the mental health wait times to a month and focusing on preventative health measures are not a straightforward, easy task
He gave us a glimpse of one way he wants to change lives – and if he can get into government and if he really knows how to deliver on that promise, then it’s really going to change lives. “I want Britain to be the healthiest nation in the world… We would shift the priority in the NHS away from emergency care to prevention,” he said. He also pledged Labor would guarantee support for a mental health problem would be available in less than a month. None of these promises are tiny, easy to fulfill. They’re going to cost a lot of money and take up an enormous amount of bandwidth to even come close to a Labor government.
Keir Starmer’s conference speech is probably best remembered for the heckling he received from an odd group of Labor delegates – and the way he confronted them. The theme of the conference was that he wanted Labor to be a serious party again, even if some of its members disagreed. “Shout slogans or change lives, conference!” he replied after a heckler spoke further from the ground.
Providing adequate support for a mental health problem within a month almost defies the laws of physics, given the long wait times for almost all mental health services in this country. The pandemic has made things even worse. But it was awful before either of us had even heard of Covid.
Labor plans to change the way waiting times are measured so that the focus is not on the first appointment when someone’s needs are assessed but treatment does not begin, but rather on the second when the patients are start their regular therapy. Right now, the gap between the two can be long as doctors advise patients to seek private treatment if they can afford it.
It’s a situation reminiscent of the Blair years, when waiting times for physical health problems were so long that the government feared public support for the NHS would crumble. It prompted then-Health Secretary Alan Milburn to warn the health service was in the “last chance room,” and then set tough targets to shorten those waits.
The NHS still enjoys a high level of public support in general. But its ability to treat mental illness in a timely manner means many people simply don’t trust it to take care of them, or worse, their children, when their minds are ailing. A party that genuinely loves the NHS as much as Labor claims should be concerned and work on policies to remedy it.
Another departure from Labour’s comfortable habit of simply paying tribute to the health service and questioning Tory motives is Starmer’s emphasis on prevention. He has recounted meetings with colleagues he thinks key lies in “preventive public health” – although he has been wisely pointed out that no one has any idea what he meant by that. In the conference room he formulated it as the goal of “preventing problems before they bite”.
Starmer is personally interested, as is his political director, Claire Ainsley. At the start of the conference, the leader held a Q&A with Love Island star Amy Hart and young people, during which they discussed mental wellbeing, among other things. Even his front benchers bring it up again and again.
In fact, the need for government to create a healthy society was one of the few clear themes at this conference. Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth talked a lot about it in his speech on Tuesday. He has held meetings with New Zealand government officials about their work on well-being and has been heavily influenced by the work of former NHS boss Nigel Crisp, who wrote a book entitled Health is made at home, hospitals are there for repairs. Ashworth quoted it in the conference room: “There is a saying, ‘Health is done at home. Hospitals are there for repairs. “It captures a fundamental truth: that health arises in our communities and depends on the conditions in which we live.”
Ashworth and other frontbenchers, including Ed Miliband, who is Starmer’s ‘key thinker’, are very enthusiastic about the Welsh Future Generations Act, which requires public bodies to take long-term welfare into account in their decision-making.
If some of this sounds eerily familiar to you, that’s because David Cameron, as leader of the opposition, has always rambled on about it. His party even produced posters with “general well-being” emblazoned on beautiful flower images. They wouldn’t have found a place in a yoga studio next to a cabinet full of green juices. They also seemed to evaporate when the Conservatives came to power.
Things have changed in the past ten years. People are understanding – also through the pandemic – that well-being is not only important, but also a serious issue. But making sure it doesn’t suffer the same fate as it did under the Tories will be a lot harder work than staring down a few eccentric hecklers.
Isabel Hardman is Associate Editor of The Spectator magazine. She writes a monthly health policy column for I