Apparently, Jeremy Corbyn has a wooden elephant sculpture in his office which he points at whenever people avoid talking about the most pressing issue.
Before turning to Labour’s mental health policy, I am going to take Jeremy’s lead and mention the elephant in the room that is the possibility of ever enacting that policy.
I am writing this blog on my 42nd birthday and in all those years Labour has only won three general elections: 1997, 2001 and 2005. Len McCluskey has just said that if Labour win 200 seats on June 8, that’s 30 fewer than we hold now and 130 less than required to form a government, would be a ‘great success’. Like tens of thousands of other party activists, I am working very hard to get Labour into government but if all we manage is Len’s ‘success’ we must think very hard about how we won in those years and why we have not won in the many years before or since. Without winning power in parliament, as clause one of our constitution tells us is our purpose, policy on mental health or anything is almost worthless and we betray those who need us most.
So, elephant despatched I turn to policy. Like almost all mental health policy the Labour manifesto’s ‘mental health’ section talks solely of ‘mental ill-health’ and services.
Of course it is vital that when someone is ill, physically or mentally, they have access to excellent services and I welcome the manifesto’s emphasis on children and minorities who suffer disproportionately.
As a recovering alcoholic and depressive I benefitted from excellent health services and do not underestimate their importance. But our mental health does not exist in a vacuum only to be medically treated when it fails.
Our genes are a relatively small and, as yet, unalterable factor in our mental health whilst most things that affect our psychological wellbeing can be influenced by ourselves, families, communities and government.
By focusing on illness we neglect the fact that a lot of ill health is not just something to be endured and treated but a scourge that can often be prevented. Labour must aim for everyone to able to enjoy the best mental health possible by improving the factors that help everyone to thrive.
Those factors include poverty, parenting, abuse, neglect, bullying, isolation, lack of community and substance misuse.
In fairness beyond the formal ‘mental health’ section the manifesto seeks to address many of those factors and, at its best, seeks to build on the legacy of the last Labour government.
In 1999 Tony Blair committed to eradicate child poverty, the strongest pre-determinant of mental ill health, in 20 years. Labour did in fact manage to halve it in a decade. Between 1998/9-2011/12, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures show 800,000 children were lifted out of poverty.
Unfortunately our children have paid a high price for Labour being out of power. Since 2010, the number of children in absolute poverty has increased by 500,000. Nearly one in three children is now growing up in poverty with a dire effect on their health and prospects and with them that of our whole country. As a direct result of tax and benefit decisions made since 2010, the Institute for Fiscal Studies project that the number of children in relative poverty (before housing costs) will have risen from 2.3 to 3.6 million by 2020.
These figures mean that more and more real people, including my constituents are becoming impoverished and ill.
Peter (not his real name) recently came to my councillor surgery with a desperate but increasingly familiar story. Despite working full-time, as most people in poverty do, he and his wife’s salaries only just cover their very modest flat’s rent, which is therefore subsidised by housing benefit. The bedroom tax reduced this lifeline when their grown-up daughter moved out and then the DWP made Peter ineligible for the tax credits that had lifted him out of poverty.
The DWP didn’t tell Peter of this change and carried on paying until they realised their ‘error’ and are now clawing back nearly 10 per cent of his whole income every month for the next two years. As a result, hard-working Peter and his family are not ‘just about managing’, they are on the verge of destitution and, not surprisingly, are becoming increasingly stressed and depressed. It is not hard to imagine Peter being tipped into serious mental illness and as a black man he is 17 times more likely to be diagnosed with psychosis than his white peers.
After poverty and parenting we know that early years’ provision and schooling can make a huge difference to the chances of people enjoying lifetime good mental health. Not only were the previous generation of children lifted out of poverty under the premierships of Blair and Gordon Brown but they also benefitted from Labour’s brilliant Sure Start and from a doubling of both the NHS and state education budgets. In the capital Labour’s London Challenge transformed the country’s worst schools into the best. In Lambeth for example over 95 per cent of our schools are Good or Outstanding with exam results in England’s top 10 per cent despite having the 14th most deprived population.
Lib Dem and Tory cuts and ‘reforms’ have shut one third of Sure Start centres nationally and the national funding formula will cut about £1,000 per pupil per year from schools in the most deprived areas including Peter’s. If the Tories were genuinely interested in what works educationally they would replicate the London Challenge across the country not undermine it through divisive free and grammar schools.
So I welcome Labour’s manifesto’s commitments to improve education, early years’ provision, poverty reduction, housing, mental health and public services. These are good promises but they will remain unfulfilled unless the Labour party wins power. I will do all I can to make that happen but if we fall short I expect us all to do what it takes to get back to winning for Peter and everyone else who desperately needs a Labour government. Only by doing so can we build the good society that is required to prevent mental ill health as well as ensure that there are excellent public services needed when it occurs.