‘Why Labour must not go too far embracing the nanny state’

Posted by: on Jan 12, 2024 | No Comments

If Labour gets into government, the list of issues to address will be long. The electorate will expect change, and it would be easy for Keir Starmer and his team to rely on the power of government. But the balance between addressing societal change and maintaining freedoms needs to be considered. Get this wrong and Labour will be a one-term wonder.

It has always been a charge that Conservatives have fired at Labour, that they are too focused on the power of the state and do not give enough credence to individual decisions. Whilst the Conservatives have floundered wildly in recent years concerning outlawing behaviours and imposing bans, Labour will be given no such leeway.

Labour should not rely on bans alone to foster positive change

Starmer may be embracing the ‘nanny state’ when looking at measures to improve children’s health, but the party should consider alternative approaches to fostering positive change without automatically relying on bans.

That is not to suggest that there should be no bans or interventions, because they can sort the worst types of exploitation and excess – in the workplace, of animals, in markets, to promote good health. But will they change individual behaviour? No, that is less likely. There is a danger that it can build resentment instead.

The final policy platform for the manifesto, as revealed by LabourList, contains a series of ‘nanny state’ policies.

  • A children’s health plan including a 9:00pm watershed for junk food advertising on television and banning paid-for advertising of less healthy foods on online media
  • A roadmap to a smoke-free Britain including legislation to require tobacco companies to include information in tobacco products that dispels the myth that smoking reduces stress and anxiety
  • Ban vapes from being branded and advertised to appeal to children

Speaking about the party’s child health plan this week, Starmer went further and committed to supervised toothbrushing in schools alongside better access to mental health support, cutting waiting times for hospital care for children and guaranteeing more dental appointments.

Real change takes time, effort, education and commitment

All this points to a more vigorous ‘nanny state’ under a Labour government, an approach that Starmer appeared content with: “We need to take on this question of the nanny state… The moment you do anything on child health, people say ‘you’re going down the road of the nanny state.’ We want to have that fight.”

The party needs to be careful about the levels of compulsion in its ‘nanny state’ and a potential over-reliance on bans to deliver immediate change. Children’s health is one thing, but positive change needs to be fostered not foisted.

Real change takes time, effort, education and commitment. It means working with businesses, campaigners and professionals to secure the desired outcome.

The politics of bans also mean that a post-election Conservative Party, likely to be more free market in outlook, will hammer Labour for being the militant wing of the ‘nanny state’. This perception would alienate voters and quickly erode public support. It is crucial for Labour to avoid this image to maintain credibility and trust. Not least, the party needs to avoid giving the Conservatives any easy hits.

There are a range of tools available to Labour beyond bans

A reliance on bans will give the impression that Labour is seeking to control lives rather than allowing people to make informed choices. Empowering communities fits exactly with the devolution agenda, making it a more attractive approach. The lack of trust in politicians would likely undermine the effectiveness of bans in any case. There could well be a reaction against them.

Even if a ban is thought to be the right way forward, then how is it enforced? Where are the resources for the likes of Trading Standards when the danger of collapsing school roofs is more of an immediate concern?

But there are a range of tools open to Labour – subsidies, incentives, regulatory change among them. Securing real change has to focus on building trust and co-operation, rather than simply saying ‘no’.

Labour has to be the party of empowerment to deliver change

Through a focus on education and empowerment, the party can foster open dialogue about critical issues and develop a range of solutions. Education and communication have real power in behaviour change. 

Bans cannot be the default approach. They are a sign of government failure rather than a badge of successful action. They demonstrate a desperation to show a government means business. Announcing a ban can give a quick media headline but rarely delivers real change. There are always notable exceptions, such as the ban on indoor smoking, but even that was only part of an overall approach. 

The promised children’s health plan needs to strike the right balance if it is to deliver for the long term. Financial constraints could easily see additional provision fall away or come later, with the bans/enforcement remaining in place from the outset.

Individual freedoms appear ever more highly prized, so Labour’s approach to securing change needs to build trust, foster cooperation and empower communities. Labour has to be the party of empowerment if it wants to deliver change.