Lib-Cons: following New Labour’s diet

Andrew Lansley’s health vouchers scheme exposes the coalition’s view of the masses as unhealthy and a bit thick.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

The health secretary for England, Andrew Lansley, launched the next phase of the on-going Change4Life scheme this week, with a promise of discount vouchers to make eating the ‘right’ food more affordable. Some have accused Lansley and his Lib-Con government of trying to bribe people into healthy living – but the real problem is the low opinion of the population that is reflected in this drive to ‘nudge’ us into following a state-approved lifestyle.

Change4Life was launched two years ago by the New Labour government, and it is an indication of how much agreement there is across the political spectrum on health interventions that the Lib-Con coalition could carry it on. The message of the campaign is to ‘eat well, move more, live longer’. This YouTube advert gives a flavour of the live-healthy-or-your-kids-will-die-young tone of the whole thing.

Change4Life child obesity advert, 2009

Yet, it seems that such lecturing hasn’t been working. Even threatening our children with an early grave doesn’t seem to have done the trick. So, out go the sermons and in come the attempts to nudge us into eating five portions of fruit and veg every day and exercising more. The new phase of Change4Life is called The Great Swapathon. The aim, according to the Department of Health, is for everyone ‘to swap at least one unhealthy habit for a healthier one. The government is aiming to deliver one million swaps from unhealthy to healthier lifestyle choices, among families and adults in England.’

The new initiatives include: a £50 book of vouchers for money off healthier foods and activities; recipes for healthier alternatives to favourite snacks; recipes for family options for each mealtime; and nutritional and activity advice. Naturally, it’s the voucher scheme – which is not entirely new – that has attracted the most attention. The scheme works by offering discounts on brand-name products, with manufacturers and retailers bearing the cost of the scheme. Featured products include Birds Eye packs of sweetcorn and green beans, Kellogg’s corn flakes, Flora Light spread, Hellman’s Light mayonnaise and a variety of Asda own-brand foods. The vouchers are mostly to be distributed through Asda stores and the News of the World newspaper.

Critics have argued that the scheme simply allows big companies like Unilever, Kellogg’s and Asda to present themselves as providing healthy food when they are really promoting junk. Tam Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, told the Daily Mail: ‘Industry has leapt at this opportunity to be seen to be the good guys and have government approval without doing that much about healthy food in return.’

Fry is right to be cynical about how effective this will be, but not because it will allow supermarkets and food manufacturers to push unhealthy food on to the gormless masses. The real reason it will be ineffective is because, for all the hype about eating five-a-day, it doesn’t work, as Patrick Basham and John Luik explain elsewhere on spiked. If you enjoy eating fruit and veg, that’s great, but it doesn’t seem to help you live longer.

What’s really unappetising about Fry’s comments is that they illustrate a broader point: that the people supposedly standing up for the little guy against big business actually have the lowest opinion of the masses. Apparently, the population is scoffing all that convenience food, all that fat, sugar and salt, because they have been hoodwinked into eating it by malevolent corporations; they have become literally ‘hooked on junk’, so that they come back to it again and again as surely as heroin addicts.

Even worse, this outlook now has official approval. The Cabinet Office has a Behavioural Insight Team, advised by Nudge author Richard Thaler, which seems to suggest that if the dumb-ass plebs can be fooled into bad lifestyle choices by clever advertising, then the government can fool us into good choices using a variety of behavioural tricks.

And it’s pretty clear from the Change4Life strategy who the government thinks needs a bit of behaviour modification: the kind of people who shop at budget supermarket chain Asda (the UK arm of Wal-Mart) and read the Sunday tabloid nicknamed the News of the Screws.

Never mind that people buy food for a whole variety of different reasons, from cost to enjoyment to a personal judgement on what they can persuade their kids to eat. Apparently the government and health campaigners know best, and if they can guilt-trip food companies into paying for their crusades into working-class life, so much the better.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a sermon, a nudge or a ban, the reality of government intervention into our lives is that it undermines our autonomy. We might have had our fill of such nonsense under New Labour, but it looks like we’re going to be force-fed more such initiatives under the Lib-Con coalition.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked and blogs at Panic on a Plate.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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