Last week on the final day of the Labour Party conference, the leader of the opposition Sir Keir Starmer announced a series of much-anticipated policies. This year a central theme on the lips of many in the shadow cabinet, and a much-lauded part of Sir Keir’s first conference speech, was a commitment to mental health and the tackling of the Pandemic’s healthcare backlog.
An overshadowed conference
The build-up to the Brighton conference was plagued by controversial rule changes described by some as ‘vote-rigging’, factional ‘Corbynista/Blairite’ tensions, and accusations of ‘purges’; so perhaps some Labour Party members found the leadership’s rhetoric on mental health quite jarring, especially when compared to many members recent experiences of misconduct investigations.
Last month, two high-ranking members, Labour MP Kate Osborne and chair of Labour's youth wing Jess Barnard, were emailed a notice of investigation from Labour’s Governance and Legal Unit (GLU).
Ms Osborne called the charges against her “completely baseless” and said in a statement on Twitter: “The evidence relied on made no sense. There never was anything that was a breach of the rules. I was told I could not discuss the matter with anyone – except the Samaritans.”
While Ms Barnard told Norwich Evening News that the email that she received at 1am had a severe impact on her mental wellbeing, saying, "I've never felt so low in all my time with Labour as I have in the past month. It's been really difficult.”
Both investigations were promptly dropped, although many mainly in the Party's left fear that the lengthy process is negatively impacting the mental health of grassroot members, as does veteran Labour MP John McDonnell, who told left-wing news outlet Left Foot Forwards:
“The Labour leadership need to be worried and concerned about the impact [that investigations are] having on people's mental health. When you receive that letter, you're under investigation, or you received the charges, you can't recognise them against you, you get worried, then it drags on for months and months, the stress builds up. I think it's causing a severe impact on a large number of people's mental health, and I think the Party really needs to be concerned about the impact this is having on party members wellbeing.”
Labour to stand on a platform of improving healthcare standards and mental and physical health parity
In his conference speech, Sir Keir Starmer pledged that a government under his leadership would guarantee access to mental health support in less than a month on referral; he said: "We'll recruit the mental health staff that we need. Over 8,500 more mental health professionals supporting a million more people every year."
A policy similar to standards announced by NHS England in July, which committed to a maximum of four weeks wait from referral to community based mental health services.
The Labour leader also hinted that a Starmer Government would match the Conservative Party’s multi-million-pound uplift in spending. In his 90-minute speech, he said: “Under Labour, spending on mental health will never be allowed to fall.”
Mental Health charities and advocates warmly welcomed the proposed policies. Responding to the keynote speech, Katherine Carpenter, president of the British Psychological Society, said: "For years, mental health services have been chronically underfunded, and people have paid the price, with delays in accessing assessment and treatment. While the commitment from Labour that mental health funding will never fall is encouraging, we need to see funding increase significantly given the challenges we are facing.”
Ms Carpenter also echoed the response of the Royal College of Psychiatrists by saying, “The promised recruitment of 8,500 new mental health professionals is a good first step”. However, she also touched on similar concerns voiced by Labour members by concluding: “It is essential that we tackle some of the root causes which can contribute to negative mental health including the rising levels of poverty and the lack of stable and well-paid work.”
The material roots of mental distress: is it time for a £15 minimum wage?
The material causes of mental distress and anxiety were indirectly debated on the conference floor. Labour members and trade union delegates unanimously backed a motion for a substantial increase in the minimum wage from £8.91 to £15-an-hour. Although the vote was not binding, the distance in alignment between the membership and leadership kicked off a dispute over whether the legal pay floor should be raised to £10 or £15.
Low pay and poverty naturally increase the risk of mental health problems and can be both a causal factor and a consequence of mental ill-health. Research has shown that raising the minimum wage can have important health benefits, including for the mental wellbeing of people on low incomes.
Campaigners argue that increasing the minimum wage to £15 per hour would lift vast numbers of working people out of poverty and remove the burden of welfare from the taxpayer. In contrast, many in the party leadership counter that raising the legal threshold wouldn’t be economically viable and would disincentivise training for ‘underpaid’ specialised professions – such as nurses.
So far, the Labour shadow cabinet has only called for an increase to £10, the same as the 2019 manifesto. However, the majority of the public support the more considerable increase; a recent Survation poll found that 76% of Labour voters and 59% of Conservative voters favour a gradual rise in the minimum wage to £15. Therefore, a politically calculated rethink leading up to the next general election is not unimaginable.
How will mental health feature in the next general election? Will we get airy platitudes or substantial policies?
Understandably healthcare has become a priority for the public since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is clear that now more than ever that people realise the impact that everyday environments and circumstances have on their mental wellbeing as well as the value of accessible services. But for a leader who has been accused by his critics of being dishonest, cynical, and being led by focus groups, Keir Starmer still needs to fully flesh out to the electorate how he will make mental health a real ‘priority’ in a future Labour Government.
The shadow cabinet has pitched to the country the “first steps” in their plan to solve the current backlog crisis. However, more needs to be said; Keir Starmer’s will need to go beyond mere throwaway political platitudes, or in his own words from “shouting slogans” to “changing lives”. His record will ultimately be judged by its substance, and the policies that Labour takes to the next general election – and whether those policies decisively address the underlying material causes of mental ill-health, such as low pay, poverty, affordability of living, debt, homelessness, inequality, drug and criminal justice rehabilitation, and poor working conditions.