Ed Miliband attends the launch of an online mental health resource. Photo: Getty
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It is no longer enough for our parties just to talk about mental health

Since the last election, mental health has risen higher in the agenda than many campaigners even dreamt of. Labour, however, is behaving as though just talking about the issue is still good enough. 

Of all the many depressing developments in politics over the past years there has been the odd beam of light breaking through the cloud; one such beam is mental health. Mental health has become steadily more and more important in Westminster politics and now it figures as a significant element in each party’s health policy. Every party will at the very least mention mental health in the short paragraphs that they will try and win the public’s votes with. But lip service is no longer enough and sadly Labour in particular is guilty of doing just that.

It’s not all that often that the Lib Dems are called the most progressive of the three main parties and although it would be contentious to call them the most progressive party on mental health, it is not controversial to say that they are the clearest on it. Nick Clegg’s conference speech last year was filled with mental health announcements, including the much lauded announcement creating waiting times for the first time for mental health. Despite the fact that the financial figures used in his speech were a mish-mash of government plans and manifesto promises, the Lib Dem website explicitly lists the party’s financial commitment for mental health. £400m is to go on psychological therapies and £54m on widening children’s access to mental health care.

The Conservative party has publically declared mental health to be a priority, Jeremy Hunt’s conference speech last year proved as much. But when it comes to specific policy commitments there are none of any substance. This makes a degree of sense since mental health seems to have largely been delegated to their coalition partners. However, this excuse is not one that Labour can use; Andy Burnham has won a fair amount of praise for his adoption of "whole-person care", an integrated system of health and social care, giving due priority to mental health. Beyond this though, there has been little progress toward any kind of precise figures and/or policy.

Whereas the Lib Dems have pledge £54m to the problem, Ed Miliband has so far only really identified that children’s mental health is a problem. Children’s mental health services have suffered a real terms cut of 6 per cent since 2010, a "neglect" that Miliband has rightly pledged to stop. Aside from showing us how much they have been cut and saying that Labour will increase spending, we are voting blind on this; how much will they increase spending by? When?  Where will they target the money?

Labour’s recently released independent report on mental health by Stephen O’Brien, which has been two years in the making, has committed the same crime as the central party; it comprehensively identified the problems and false economies in our current approach, but it hasn’t provided any solutions. This is a problem across all parties; considering that the field is pretty well open for any of the main 5 parties to play a role in the next government, there is a worrying lack of specifics and figures. The election is 92 days away, that is fair enough, but soon enough they will need to tell us what they intend to do.

There is an opportunity right now, before the manifestos are launched, for the political parties to take mental health seriously enough to get specific and set out their spending plans. Mental health funding is in dire straits and it is absolutely not adequate just to say you think it’s important. If Labour is not careful, this playing-it-safely approach will give the other parties an open goal on mental health, in much the same way that they let the Tories score on postgraduate funding. As the main opposition party, they cannot let that happen. 

Dan Holden is deputy editor of Shifting Grounds

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The polls are bad, but Jeremy Corbyn’s office has a secret weapon

How a shake-up of the leadership team has steadied nerves at the top of Labour. 

If polling had existed back in 1906, Jeremy Corbyn quipped at one recent strategy meeting, the Labour Party would never have got started.

As far as Labour’s direction is concerned, it is that meeting at four o’clock every Monday afternoon that matters. The people who attend it regularly are the Labour leader, his aides, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as the party’s election co-ordinator, and their respective aides.

In recent weeks, the meetings have been stormy affairs, and not only because the numbers from the party’s own pollsters, BMG Research, mirror the uniformly bleak picture from the public polls. There is also concern over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager. Murphy is highly rated by Corbyn for having brought increased intensity and efficiency to the leader’s office. Corbyn often struggles to deliver bad news in person and appreciates that Murphy will intervene on his behalf.

Her intensity is not uniformly welcomed. “She could start a fight with her own reflection,” in the wry words of one friend. An argument with Jon Trickett – the Hemsworth MP whose unusual career trajectory took him from being a parliamentary aide to Peter Mandelson to the inner sanctum of Ed Miliband’s leadership and finally to the role of election co-ordinator for Corbyn – led to Trickett going on a two-week strike, recusing himself from vital meetings and avoiding any contact with Murphy.

That row eventually led to Trickett being stripped of his role and banished from the Monday meeting. Murphy had a similar turf war with the campaigns director, Simon Fletcher, which culminated in Fletcher resigning on 17 February. In a letter to staffers, he called on the party to “keep the promise” of Corbyn’s first leadership bid, a period when Fletcher was central and Murphy had yet to start working for the Labour leader.

All of which, in better political weather, would simply be part of the back-and-forth of office politics. However, set against the backdrop of unease about by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, and a series of unhelpful leaks, it adds to a sense of vulnerability around the leadership. One loyalist shadow cabinet minister calls it “the most dangerous time” for Corbyn since he was first elected leader.

Why the danger? Contrary to popular myth, the backbone of Jeremy Corbyn’s successive landslide victories was not a hard-pressed twentysomething, struggling to find a fixed job or to get a foot on the housing ladder. The shock troops of Corbynism, at least as far as the internal battle in the Labour Party went, were baby boomers. Many of them were either working in, or on early retirement from, a charity or the public sector, deeply concerned about the rightward drift of British politics and worried about the next generation.

Corbyn’s decision to whip Labour MPs in support of triggering Article 50 – the process whereby Britain will begin its exit from the European Union – was, in their eyes, a double heresy. The vote signalled acceptance that the forces of the Eurosceptic right had won on 23 June, and it conceded that visa-free travel, membership of the single market and freedom of movement are over.

None of this is automatically great news for Corbyn’s internal critics – not least because the vote on Article 50 is rare in being an issue that unites Corbyn with most Labour MPs. Yet it adds to the sense that his leadership has passed its best-before date.

Adding to the general malaise is a series of unhelpful leaks. There was a story in the Sunday Times on 12 February claiming that the leadership was road-testing possible replacements for Corbyn, and on 20 February the Mirror claimed that the Labour leadership had commissioned a poll to find out whether or not the leader should quit his post. These stories are hotly denied by the leader’s office. Some in Corbyn’s inner circle believe they are the work of Trickett, embittered at his demotion.

It is true that Corbyn is not enjoying the job as much as he once did. However, if the conversation shifts from the minutiae of Brexit to his natural terrain of the NHS and the continuing consequences of government cuts on education and the prisons service, he could quickly find himself relishing the role once more.

Corbyn retains two powerful cards. His newly energised office, under Karie Murphy, is one. Although her brisk approach has generated some public rows, the feeling in the leader’s office is that a chief of staff was needed, and Murphy has assumed that role. The media team has also grown sharper with the addition of David Prescott (son of John), Matt Zarb-Cousin and the former Momentum spokesman James Schneider.

Corbyn’s second asset is more unexpected. His rivals inside the party now fear rather than relish an immediate end to his leadership. A former shadow cabinet member splits his supporters into two groups: “idealists and ideologues – the first we can inspire and win over, the second have to be got rid of”. In their view, the idealists have not yet moved away from Corbyn enough to guarantee victory; the ideologues, for their part, will slink off as Corbyn puts the demands of his office above their interests, as he did over Article 50.

Although self-defeating panic has never been a rare commodity in the Labour Party, the settled view of Labour MPs is that their leader must be given time and space rather than hustled out of the door. There is an awareness, too, that MPs who are united in opposition to Corbyn are divided over many other issues.

So, while the inner circle’s Monday meetings might be fraught, and Labour’s current polling would have given Keir Hardie pause, Jeremy Corbyn is safe. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit