Tell people to eat less? Yes, that’ll sort out obesity

The government's package has little chance of successfully tackling our greatest single public healt

"Worthless, patronising rubbish" was how TV chef Jamie Oliver described the government's new obesity strategy in Thursday's Guardian. Not a doctor, admittedly -- although the BMA also weighed in -- but someone who cares passionately about the subject and has taken considerable pains to try and reverse the bad eating habits of British schoolchildren. He's also got a point. And, ironically, at least part of the problem is traceable back to a Tory-driven policy from the early 80s.

How do I know this? I was there. Overnight, the move from a set menu to a cafeteria system in my Yorkshire comp changed many of my friends' diets from a fairly balanced diet to one of chips, pizza and doughnuts, because, unsurprisingly, that was what they liked. Consumer choice was important, wasn't it? Except that it wasn't. Choice is not an automatic, universal social good. And those who paid for this particular schoolboy error were mostly the kids from the rougher estates, who didn't eat well at home, either.

Fast-forward to today, and there's a sense of déjà vu. Obesity. It's just about people eating too much and not getting enough exercise, isn't it? I mean, why can't they just cut the calories and get off their fat backsides?

Surprisingly this, in a nutshell, is Andrew Lansley's breathtakingly subtle and innovative strategy to combat obesity. Eat less, move around more. Rather than getting people to understand healthy eating, we are back in the 1970s, cutting calories. In other words, if you eat a diet comprised of nothing but chips, as long as you eat few enough to stay within your calorie limits, you're healthy, as far as the government's concerned.

Lansley's comments have, unsurprisingly, found approving echoes in the right-leaning press: "fat people have only themselves to blame", runs one Telegraph comment piece. But obesity is simultaneously a public health and an educational problem, not just a medical condition. And, patently, if it were that simple we would have cracked it a long time ago.

Ilona Catherine, health correspondent for the Independent, writes: "Telling an obese person to consume less...is like telling an alcoholic to have one glass of wine rather than a bottle or two." Just read this fine, brave and personal piece by blogger Emma Burnell, if you really want to understand both the daily struggle and the politics that underlie obesity.

Now, I am not, I think, one to sign up to that twenty-first century, Oprah-style craze for converting every slight human condition into an illness. But I take exception to this.

Lansley's wrong-headedness derives from four errors: his dogma that what Labour has done is nanny-state and must be reversed; that a coercive, do-as-I-say approach will work in this area, for which there is little evidence; that central government edicts are undesirable per se and do not work (er, smoking ban, anyone?); and a fatal succumbing to food industry interests -- highlighted last year by former Downing Street adviser John McTernan in the Telegraph -- in proposing that self-regulation, instead of government control, is a large part of the answer. Yes, that worked well in the City, and the press, didn't it?

It is perhaps true that Labour's attempts have not solved the problem as quickly as anyone would have liked, although it is also difficult to prove how effectively one is turning around a long-term problem which often starts in childhood. But this package, according to most interested parties, is simplistic, unambitious and has precious little chance of successfully tackling our greatest single public health problem.

Worthless? Perhaps I wouldn't go that far. But not worth much.

Rob Marchant is a political commentator and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

 

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Theresa May’s stage-managed election campaign keeps the public at bay

Jeremy Corbyn’s approach may be chaotic, but at least it’s more authentic.

The worst part about running an election campaign for a politician? Having to meet the general public. Those ordinary folk can be a tricky lot, with their lack of regard for being on-message, and their pesky real-life concerns.

But it looks like Theresa May has decided to avoid this inconvenience altogether during this snap general election campaign, as it turns out her visit to Leeds last night was so stage-managed that she barely had to face the public.

Accusations have been whizzing around online that at a campaign event at the Shine building in Leeds, the Prime Minister spoke to a room full of guests invited by the party, rather than local people or people who work in the building’s office space.

The Telegraph’s Chris Hope tweeted a picture of the room in which May was addressing her audience yesterday evening a little before 7pm. He pointed out that, being in Leeds, she was in “Labour territory”:

But a few locals who spied this picture online claimed that the audience did not look like who you’d expect to see congregated at Shine – a grade II-listed Victorian school that has been renovated into a community project housing office space and meeting rooms.

“Ask why she didn’t meet any of the people at the business who work in that beautiful building. Everyone there was an invite-only Tory,” tweeted Rik Kendell, a Leeds-based developer and designer who says he works in the Shine building. “She didn’t arrive until we’d all left for the day. Everyone in the building past 6pm was invite-only . . . They seemed to seek out the most clinical corner for their PR photos. Such a beautiful building to work in.”

Other tweeters also found the snapshot jarring:

Shine’s founders have pointed out that they didn’t host or invite Theresa May – rather the party hired out the space for a private event: “All visitors pay for meeting space in Shine and we do not seek out, bid for, or otherwise host any political parties,” wrote managing director Dawn O'Keefe. The guestlist was not down to Shine, but to the Tory party.

The audience consisted of journalists and around 150 Tory activists, according to the Guardian. This was instead of employees from the 16 offices housed in the building. I have asked the Conservative Party for clarification of who was in the audience and whether it was invite-only and am awaiting its response.

Jeremy Corbyn accused May of “hiding from the public”, and local Labour MP Richard Burgon commented that, “like a medieval monarch, she simply briefly relocated her travelling court of admirers to town and then moved on without so much as a nod to the people she considers to be her lowly subjects”.

But it doesn’t look like the Tories’ painstaking stage-management is a fool-proof plan. Having uniform audiences of the party faithful on the campaign trail seems to be confusing the Prime Minister somewhat. During a visit to a (rather sparsely populated) factory in Clay Cross, Derbyshire, yesterday, she appeared to forget where exactly on the campaign trail she was:

The management of Corbyn’s campaign has also resulted in gaffes – but for opposite reasons. A slightly more chaotic approach has led to him facing the wrong way, with his back to the cameras.

Corbyn’s blunder is born out of his instinct to address the crowd rather than the cameras – May’s problem is the other way round. Both, however, seem far more comfortable talking to the party faithful, even if they are venturing out of safe seat territory.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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