With the General Election campaign entering its final week, Four Public Affairs has taken a look at what the Conservative and Labour manifestos have to offer for the food and beverage industry.
Forward Together: The Conservative Party Manifesto
‘Lips that promise fear the worst’ or so goes a 90s classic by the Beautiful South. If that’s true then the Conservative Party has very little at all to worry about judging by the contents of its manifesto. There’s a smattering of specific pledges, but the document is more big-picture than big detail. This is especially true when combing through it to discover what our likely next government has in store for the food and beverage industry.
As you can see from our policy-plates infographic, in the entire manifesto there are only eight policy positions specifically targeted at the food and drink sector and its agricultural supply chain. Of those, only three can be considered firm policy pledges. The rest we’ve identified as commitments or aspirations requiring further detail.
But what’s behind this incredible paucity of ambition on behalf of the governing party? There seem to be two factors at play here: personality and politics.
In the latter days of the Cameron administration, Jane Ellison MP went a touch ‘native’ in her public health brief. The once ardent free market champion became quite the cheerleader for HFSS interventions. Though the Soft Drinks Industry Levy is the only legislative artefact from her time at DH, she had become quite content to look at the issue of rising obesity and cry “Something must be done!”
The advent of Mrs May’s premiership saw Ellison head over to HMT where far more sober issues fill her time. She was replaced by Nicola Blackwood MP, who vacated her role as Chair of the Science & Technology Select Committee to take up ministerial office. Blackwood hasn’t dazzled and any effort she may have made to shine has been largely eclipsed by the vitriol directed at her boss, Jeremy Hunt, over his management of the NHS.
It’s small wonder then that the Conservative manifesto isn’t full to bursting with promises on public health. There has been no enthusiastic (much-less, influential) champion for these interventions since Ellison joined the bean counters at the Treasury. As you can see from our infographic, there’s only one firm, public health specific policy pledge in the entire tome – to support the national diabetes prevention programme. Beyond that, there is some vague language around reducing unhealthy ingredients and continuing action on childhood obesity but nothing concrete. In fact the bête noire of the NGOs features on not one single occasion - the document is literally sugar-free. Perhaps unsurprising; Mrs May is a diabetic after all.
Packaging and matters agricultural form the rest of the Conservative offer for the sector – both firmly in Defra’s wheelhouse. And let’s face it; neither Defra nor its ministers are ever going to set the world alight: big portfolio, low priority, diminishing budget, and generally ministers on the decline rather than in the ascendency. Given the PM’s desire for a thumping majority in the next parliament, Defra is a prime candidate for a reshuffle. If that’s your game then why would you let your one-time adversary (Secretary of State, Andrea Leadsom, briefly challenged May for the leadership) get any of their big ideas into your prospectus for the country? You wouldn’t and neither, it seems, would the PM.
Rather than the people involved, it’s raw politics that have influenced the manifesto here; the politics of Brexit.
Defra is the department with the biggest Brexit challenge by far, which is why it got such a look-in in the manifesto. It deals with more EU regulation than any other government department and will be working overtime to unravel itself, and our food industry, from the tangled web of EU legislation. Don’t let that fool you, though. The policies in the manifesto aren’t being driven by the department. Defra will deliver what DExEU decides – these proposals are all Davis and no Leadsom. The Tories want to show what they’re doing with the powers they’ve wrested back from Brussels; and where better to start than on the packaging of the food we eat every single day? The Conservatives have promised they’ll take advantage of their new found flexibility over the presentation of information on packaged food to give consumers “clearer food information” to help them make healthier choices. The bounty of Brexit is plentiful indeed.
For the many not the few: Labour’s Prospectus
By contrast, the Labour Party has furnished the punters with no fewer than eleven pledges of action on everything from childhood obesity to the Agricultural Wages Board. They’ve gone for quantity over quality and, unfortunately for them, it shows.
When is a sugar tax not a sugar tax?
The lack of rigour in the drafting is probably most evident in their proposal to “implement the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL)”. What they actually mean is that they won’t repeal the current legislation. They also refer to it as the ‘sugar tax’. Which is surprising as not so long ago, when Diane Abbot was doing one of her stints in the shadow health team, the idea of a sugar tax was more of an all-encompassing beast not merely limited to fizzy-pop. This is, perhaps, an indication that calmer heads now prevail over Labour’s health policy and there is to be no expansion beyond the current SDIL legislation. Nor, perhaps, are there plans afoot to introduce a wider tax on high-sugar products. Equally though, either of those moves could be hidden within the Party’s plans to publish a new Childhood Obesity Strategy in its first 100 days in office. How long we have to wait for those first 100 days remains to be seen.
Will someone think of the children?
With a new index of child health, a ban on advertising to children, a desire to address child oral health and a £250 million children’s health fund all featuring in the manifesto, the Labour Party certainly don’t mind doing it for the kids. Given Labour is unlikely to form the next Government there’s little chance of Labour MPs enacting any of these policies. What they will do though is use them as a stick with which to beat the next Tory administration. If May’s majority isn’t as she expects, look out for the kind of cross-party bargaining that might see some of these interventions hit the statute book. If May’s majority is as good as or better than expected, she might even have the cheek to rip-them-off wholesale – such would be the temptation when you’re light on policy and have an Opposition that can barely add up, let alone land a knock-out blow. Despite what the PM says of the Labour Party now, some of their public health policies might fill up a news cycle or two when the going gets tough in the years to come.
Bring me solutions
Had both parties had longer to write their respective manifestos, would there be more policy meat on the bone? Perhaps. The Conservatives would still have done their ‘big ideas’ and the Labour Party their ‘little details’ – amid the chaos of politics there are some constants. What is clear though is that neither manifesto was on the stocks waiting to be published. For the food and drink industry this could be both a blessing and a curse. A curse because policy made in a hurry is seldom good or effective – so being prepared to finesse some of the fuzzier policy proposals will be a priority in the immediate wake of the General Election.
But it could prove to be a blessing, too. Whoever forms the next government, Brexit will dominate and there’s little of substance already decided when it comes to policy for the food and drink sector. Food and drink touches all of our lives and finding creative ways to help the Government show it is thinking about more than just our EU divorce will be very tempting fruit indeed.
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