Unions have a say, but do not hold balance of power in leadership

If you pays your moneys to Labour, you shoulds be able to makes your choices.

Trade unions do not hold the balance of power in the Labour leadership election, as Rachel Sylvester argues in today's Times. The last time Labour's electoral college (MPs, members and affiliates) went to the polls, Harriet Harman won the vote despite not receiving a single union nomination.

Sylvester is right to argue that the leadership candidates are in danger of looking inward rather than reaching out to the voters they must win backm but that has nothing to do with the voting system Labour is using. In fact, the involvement of more than three million people who pay to be affiliated members of the Labour Party makes the contest more open than simply having 140,000 members balloted or allowing 250 MPs to decide.

Sylvester bemoans that some people can vote five times by virtue of being an MP, if they are also a member of a union and the Co-Op and the Fabian Society. But Sylvester herself could have four of those votes just by paying £50 or so in annual subs. If you pay your money, you should be able to make your choice.

Turnout is low in the union section, but because so many have the opportunity to be involved, participation is high. Nominations do matter, but ultimately it is a membership ballot and not a block vote. It is likely that many of the smaller unions may not even nominate this time round because the more moderate leaderships fear their more militant executives may back Diane Abbott.

Their toy lollipops

Last week, David Miliband scored a major victory over Andy Burnham by securing the endorsement of Usdaw. Last time, it backed Hazel Blears; and as Usdaw is the only union HQ based in Burnham's north-west stronghold, it will be a big disappointment for him.

That said, David Miliband is unlikely to get many more union nominations, and yet he, like Harman last time, is likely to poll better among union members. Could Burnham pull off the big nomination from Unison, as the then health secretary, Alan Johnson, did last time?

There is a myth that Jon Cruddas swept the union section last time but he secured only the Unite nomination. That success came with serious organisational support in the shape of a phone-bank tele-canvassing members.

This was innovative in 2007 but is now the mainstay of any serious campaign. David Miliband has activists phone-banking already. It does seem that the Unite nomination is up for grabs, with collective rights (the rules governing recognition agreements and strike ballots) the issue that matters most to the Unite executive.

Perhaps the most controversial nomination last time was that of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), because its conference delegates actually overturned the executive's nomination and backed Peter Hain. The CWU is a single-issue union with privatisation of the Post Office its dominant concern. Whoever offers the strongest reassurance (Diane Abbott?) is likely to win the nomination.

The GMB conference in Southport hosted the first hustings, though Ed Balls didn't make it until the second day because of parliamentary commitments. Its membership illustrates another often overlooked aspect of union politics: Sylvester complains that 61 per cent of members are employed in the public sector, but many GMB, Unite and, to a lesser extent, Unison members are employed by private-sector providers performing contracted-out public services.

The big cross-cutting concern for union members at the moment, however, is pensions. If the leadership candidates want to get ahead in the game, they should be looking to pre-empt John Hutton's pensions review and make some reform recommendations of their own. At the very least, they should challenge Hutton's review by putting down some red lines.

The Tories clearly view pensions as a bargaining chip to use with the unions, Richard Balfe actually telling the Telegraph:

Public-sector pensions will clearly be a very significant issue in the wider relationship between the government and the unions . . . Public-sector pensions are like lollipops for kids.

Far more sensible discussions will need to happen over the future of public-sector pensions, and Labour's leadership candidates are well placed to lead that debate.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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Low fat, full fat: why the diet industry keeps changing its mind

A new report illustrates just how disillusioned the diet industry has become, at the expense of everyone else.

Another year, another wave of dietary fads. Most seem to surface in the summer, when new nutritional advice claims to provide the panacea to everyone’s health woes: “Eat clean get lean!” “The simple secret of intermittent fasting!” “The paleo way is the only way!” “Six weeks to a super you!”

However, despite the barrage of diet books, the expansion of nutrition research and the growth of education about healthy living, global obesity has more than doubled since 1980.

It may be that this is due to the conflicting information constantly issued from the diet industry. “Eat lots of protein – it’ll speed up your metabolism!” “Too much protein will damage your kidneys – reduce your protein intake!” “Superfoods are a vital source of antioxidants!” “Superfoods aren’t so super at all!” “Don’t snack it will make you pile on the pounds!” “You should snack – it’ll stop you from binge eating!” It’s no wonder people aren’t sure what to eat.

The UK launched its first dietary guidelines in 1994, which have since been continuously revised to form the guide now known as “The Eatwell Plate”. The dietary guidelines recommend plentiful carbohydrates “such as rice, bread, pasta and potatoes”, at least five portions of fruits and vegetables, some protein, some milk, some dairy and minimal saturated fat.

However, a recent report serves to highlight the confusion consumers face when it comes to food: it claims that the official advice on low-fat diets is outright wrong, even damaging.

Led by the National Obesity Forum and the Public Health Collaboration, the report (not peer-reviewed, it’s worth noting) attacked a host of official health proposals. It claims that “eating fat does not make you fat”, and criticises Eatwell Plate’s small fat allowance. The report also stated that saturated fats have been unfairly demonised, as there is allegedly little evidence to suggest that they cause heart disease. Meanwhile sugar consumption should be dialled down to zero, apparently, and calories shouldn’t be counted, as an abundance of them won’t cause obesity. Also, forget about the exercise - apparently a bad diet can’t be outrun, according to the report.

Professor David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: “As a clinician, treating patients all day every day, I quickly realised that guidelines from on high, suggesting high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets were the universal panacea, were deeply flawed. Current efforts have failed – the proof being that obesity levels are higher than they have ever been, and show no chance of reducing despite the best efforts of government and scientists.”

Dr Aseem Malhotra, consultant cardiologist and founding member of the Public Health Collaboration reinforced this by saying the guidelines were “perhaps the biggest mistake in modern medical history, resulting in devastating consequences for public health.” Under current dietary guidelines, obesity levels have indeed increased in the UK, with nearly two-thirds of men and women overweight or obese, costing the economy more than £3bn per year.

In the face of such starkly opposed sides - both backed by seemingly reputable experts who claim all their research is based on empirical evidence - what are consumers meant to do?

The vilification of fat

In 1983, it was recommended that overall dietary fat consumption should make up only 30 per cent of total daily energy intake – 10 per cent of which, at most, should come from saturated fat.

The recommendations came from a number of research papers published at the time, which suggested a link between saturated fat intake and increased levels of LDL cholesterol – the cholesterol which has been connected to increased risk of heart disease, stroke and atherosclerosis.

An even simpler reason for the suggestions boiled down to this: fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrates – nine calories per gram versus four, to be exact. This shape to future official guidelines, and gave birth to the low-fat high-carbohydrate mantra. Fat was cemented as public enemy number one.

As a result, the fat eliminated from people’s diets was to be supplemented with an increased intake of carbohydrates. Tipping the scales in favour of carbohydrates were promises of weight loss as a result of higher fibre content, elevated levels of serotonin to aid sleep and boosts in mood from feeling fuller.

But obesity levels continued to soar, and health experts shifted their focus to the next culprit: carbs.

The low-carb era

An analysis by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition combined the results of 21 studies and found that “saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease”. Other studies demonstrated the positive effect on testosterone levels in men from increased saturated fat intake, and have noted increased levels of triglycerides (the stuff that makes you fat) from lower fat diets.

As a result, dieticians developed a deep suspicion of carbs, and sugar in particular, and diets like the Atkins regime became more and more popular.

In part, the report by the National Obesity Forum and Public Health Collaboration uses the research that propped up these low-carb high-fat diets as a means by which to attack the general consensus surrounding healthy eating. Dr Malhotra, who led the latest report, previously worked in a pressure group called Action on Sugar – a group that has tried to get the food industry to reduce the amount of sugar added to food.

The reasoning goes something like this: guidelines encouraging greater carbohydrate consumption are oblivious to the fact that sugars constitute a vast amount of refined carbohydrates. By cranking up the sugar intake we ratchet up the risk of type 2 diabetes; this in turn could spark further health problems including obesity.

The logic seems sound, and yet obesity levels have continued to soar in the face of this research. The notion that all sugar should be avoided also ignores the fact that our brains require a significant amount of glucose for optimal functioning.

Everything in moderation

In the face of an industry that can’t make up its mind about how people should eat, it’s no wonder obesity levels have grown to epidemic proportions. So what can be done?

Professor Susan Jebb, the government’s obesity adviser, believes that the current debate needs to expand beyond the battle between carbohydrates and fat. She said: “We’re eating too many calories – if we want to tackle obesity people do need to eat fewer calories and that means less fat and less sugar.” And she’s right. If decades of research have pointed to anything assertively, it’s that calories count, and paying attention to portion sizes could take us a long way.

Both fat and carbohydrates are necessary for our bodies to function. The solution? Enjoy everything in moderation. Eat fruits without fearing fructose, don’t throw away the egg yolk, get a decent amount of protein and yes, you should have your slice of cake too.