Labour lays out 'resilience agenda' versus Cameron's 'happiness agenda'
It seems Ed Miliband's Labour opposition have decided David Cameron's fondness for the politics of well-being is something of an achilles heel. This week, Rachel Reeves, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, ">got a negative story into The Sun (as well as the cartoon, above) about how the costs of Cameron's happiness measurements policy have 'soared' to £8 million:
DREAMER David Cameron's Happiness Index has got bigger — and the cost has soared to £8MILLION. His much-ridiculed probe has been expanded to cover "the meaning of life". And the bill will end up being FOUR TIMES the original estimate after the Government admitted that the Office of National Statistics has a £2million-a-year budget for it every year until 2015.
When the PM unveiled his pet project in 2010, he said it was to probe what makes the nation happy or sad — studying the effect of things like unemployment, family, education and crime. But it has been expanded into deeper philosophical issues. The "Measuring National Well-being" survey — to be sent randomly to 200,000 households — will now include four "subjective" questions:
1. How happy did you feel yesterday?2. How anxious did you feel yesterday?3. How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?4. What extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
They were unearthed by Shadow Chief Treasury Secretary Rachel Reeves. She said: "It's shocking. Cameron needs to get a grip."
I'm not sure of the truth of this story - is it saying that the ONS spent £8 million just last year, or that it will spend £8 million in total by 2015, in which case it's on target? Anyway, it shows Labour is looking to ridicule the policy. It follows a story in the Observer the week before, where shadow health secretary poured scorned on Cameron's 'happiness agenda':
"Cameron and Clegg have done this whole thing about happiness, and I am not against the principle, but I think that is the wrong word. There is a slight danger that it sets people up: 'You have got to be happy. If you are not happy, you are failing'," he said. "So talking about mental health in terms of happiness has become the modern way of talking about mental health: 'Mental health is happiness'. And I don't think it is. It is slightly in danger of being a middle-class construct there, builds a bit of materialism into it. I think what we are talking about is resilience. Are you coping? Are you getting by? That is the bottom line."
Some Labour figures support happiness measurements, such as Alastair Campbell, Richard Layard and Geoff Mulgan (the last two are two of the founders of the movement Action for Happiness). But they are notably New Labour figures. Miliband's Labour seems to want to find a grittier rhetoric, around the idea of resilience, coping with adversity and so on (perhaps more Brownian than Blairite?) And they know that Cameron is vulnerable on this issue: some of Cameron's senior advisors warned him not to personally attach himself to the policy of measuring well-being, which is the brain-child of his floaty policy guru, marketeer Steve Hilton. But Cameron and Hilton are best mates, and Cameron seems to really believe his well-being agenda.
Labour can score some easy points here, not because well-being is a bad goal for public policy, but because happiness measurements are so crude and unresponsive that they're a useless compass for policy-makers. That will become increasingly obvious as, year after year, our happiness levels stay flat. Every January, the ONS will unveil the latest figure for our national happiness, and every year, it will be a seven. Eventually, even supporters of national happiness measurements, like the BBC's home affairs editor Mark Easton, will start to ask what's the point of these measurements if they never move.
Nonetheless, there are many aspects of the politics of well-being that I would expect Labour to support, seeing as they started them in the first place. National happiness measurements are the silliest bit of the politics of well-being, though sadly it's the part that gets the most attention. The two crucial areas are, firstly, mental health policy, and secondly, if and how to teach well-being in schools.
On the first issue, Cameron's coalition has protected the funding for the Labour policy, Improved Access for Psychotherapies (IAPT), which looks to train 6,000 new cognitive therapists by 2015. The IAPT staff are seeing thousands and thousands of mentally ill people each month, but I've heard from therapists that other parts of mental health services are being cut - such as the counsellors and therapists for more seriously disturbed patients. That's putting a lot of stress on IAPT staff, who are not trained to cope with serious conditions like manic depression.
On this issue, Labour are not directly opposing Cameron, but trying to out-flank the government - by making mental health policy more of a priority. Andy Burnham followed up that interview in the Observer with his first major speech as the new shadow health secretary this week, in which he said mental health should become the core focus of the NHS, in terms of policy and funding.
People are living longer, less stable, more stressful and isolated lives. But public services are still, by and large, working on a post-war model when people’s lives were shorter and the dangers we faced were physical. And the danger is that our national tendency not to talk openly about mental health means we will be slow to make the changes we need to see. This stiff upper-lip culture is ingrained across our society, Government and Parliament.
He focused on three needed changes:
First, if people are to get the support they need from the NHS to live full and economically active lives, and if it is to be sustainable in the 21st century, then mental health must move from the edges to the centre of the NHS.
Second, we can no longer look at people’s physical health, social care and mental health as three separate systems but as part of one vision for a modern health care system.
Third, change in our public services will only be successful if matched by a wider change in attitudes towards mental health. A country which has so often led the world in challenging discrimination needs to recognise that we’ve got much to learn from other countries when it comes to the stigma of mental ill health.
What does this mean in terms of policy? It means increasing funding further for mental health services:
Mental ill health will soon be the biggest burden on society both economically and sociologically, costing around £105 billion per annum. By 2030, the World Health Organization predicts more people will be affected by depression than any other health problem. But we spend a fraction of our overall health budget on mental health. Mental health research only receives just 6.5% of total funding in the UK compared with 25% for cancer, 15% for neurological diseases and 9% for cardiovascular conditions.
It also means improving the awareness of NHS staff (in particular GPs) at dealing with mental health issues. Many GPs are still very insensitive, and uncomfortable with mental health issues, which they tend to treat as a biomedical issue to be treated with drugs. And it means joining up mental health policy with social care, prison policy, and education policy:
this isn’t just a job for the Department of Health. It’s a job for the Treasury, the Home Office, DWP, Education, DCLG – indeed the whole of Government throwing its weight behind it. Perhaps there needs to be a senior Minister for Mental Health, even possibly at Cabinet level, to lead this coordinated drive.
Finally, it means working to overcome stigma and discrimination, particularly in the workplace:
We should work together to give a lasting legacy to the Time to Change campaign by repealing these archaic and discriminatory laws. Lord Stevenson has put forward a Private Members’ Bill to end these discriminations and I can say today that it will have Labour’s support, even if it needs to be re-introduced.
This is a pretty good agenda, and I'm really pleased to see mental health put at the centre of Labour's health policy - though we should be careful not just to focus on services for people with depression, anxiety etc, but also to try and improve the woeful services for the seriously mentally ill, including with new research. Because we still don't really know how to treat schizophrenia, the drugs we use don't work, and the human cost is really terrible.
So Labour is trying to outflank the Coalition on mental health policy. What of education policy - and the whole initiative to teach well-being in schools which New Labour began in 2002 with the introduction national curriculum subject Social and Emotional Aspects of Well-Being?
In this area, too, it could be possible to outflank the Coalition government. The minister for education, Michael Gove, seems much less keen on national well-being classes than Cameron, and SEAL is currently the subject of an independent review which may well abolish it. So what is Labour's policy?
The truth is, neither party is quite sure what policy to take forward in this area. Labour financed a three-year pilot programme designed by Martin Seligman, called the Penn Resilience Programme, which taught emotional resilience to children in three local education authorities. But the initial results are not that good: it only seemed to make a difference to the well-being of the most vulnerable children, and made no noticeable difference to academic performance. So both policy makers and the main parties are still somewhat looking around for a way to teach well-being in schools that works.
By the way, one area of policy to keep an eye on is mental health in the military. Next week, Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum is coming to the UK to give a talk at the Young Foundation on teaching resilience in the Army. She was in charge of a $125 million programme, also designed by Martin Seligman, to teach resilience to every soldier in the US Army, to help prevent the incidence of PTSD in the troops.
It's possible that the UK Army could follow suit, though to be honest I don't expect it will go for anything on the scale of the US Army, for the simple reason that PTSD is, strangely, not nearly as big a problem in British troops as in their American counterparts. This data could be wrong, or it could reflect the fact American troops are expected to serve much longer tours.
It's interesting, though, that the very week that Labour seems to launch a new 'resilience agenda', the Young Foundation launches its long-planned but much-delayed 'resilience centre'. This is the great thing about the politics of well-being - it can be adapted to fit all political persuasions...