Diet Labour, Mr Creosote and the dream-catchers

by Stephen Tall on September 29, 2005

“Nations aren’t built by dreamers. They rise by the patient courage of the change-maker. That’s what we have been in New Labour: the change-makers”. (Mr Tony Blair, 27th September, 2005). It used to be joked that New Labour was a piece of fluffy marketing gimmickry; that the party might as well be called Labour-lite or Diet Labour. Today that joke was shown to be startlingly prophetic. The depressing reality of what Mr Blair means by a party of “change-makers” became apparent with Ms Ruth Kelly’s breathtaking announcement that the Government has decided to outlaw junk food in schools.

It says much about Labour’s fetish for centralisation that such a top-down injunction seems neither strange, nor unusual. Ms Kelly left no room for doubt that she is on a crusading mission to stop our nation’s children tucking into starchy carbs, washed down with a can of carbonated artificial sweeteners: from September 2006, low quality reprocessed bangers and burgers high in fat, salt and sugar will no longer be served in schools, and crisps, chocolate and sugary fizzy drinks will no longer be available from vending machines.

And about time too, you shout. Who didn’t watch Jamie’s School Dinners, and reflect on the depressingly impoverished menus offered to our school-children? Who didn’t want to shout at the Government for expecting schools to be able to offer a nutritious meal for just 35 pence? Who didn’t despair of the kids who couldn’t identify a leek, and whose work suffered from ADD in the afternoons?

All of which is true. And none of which justifies the Government in banning junk food in our schools.

Let’s look at the practicalities. First, who is to police the Government’s new regulations? Ofsted. Yes, you read that right. Ofsted, which is responsible for inspecting educational standards in schools, is now to become the Government’s very own Egon Ronay. As Dr John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, observed: “Food inspectors are not asked to inspect the quality of education, and education inspectors should not be asked to inspect the quality of food.”

Secondly, will this ban solve the problem? Will it ensure the 15% of children currently classed as obese will be cured? Will it prevent the 83% of kids who are consuming more sugar than the maximum amount recommended for adults from snacking on sweets? No, of course not. And why not? Because school dinners account for no more than 200 of a child’s 1,000 annual square meals. This ban is a red herring (and an overcooked one at that) which distracts from the root cause of our children’s poor nourishment: poverty – whether financial or of parental care – in our homes.

This latest bout of ‘initiativitis’ is typical of New Labour’s state-centric approach to problems. Everyone is agreed that school dinners are too often of poor quality. Everyone is agreed they need to be improved. There are two groups of people – “change-makers” if you will – who are essential to make it so: teachers and governors, who are responsible for ensuring the best possible educational atmosphere in our schools; and the parents of children, who are responsible for providing at least 80% of kids’ meals. If they are both agreed that junk food should be banned in our schools, then great. What is signally wrong is for Labour to take this decision out of their hands.

The Government’s role is three-fold. First, it must provide schools with sufficient resources to enable them to offer a balanced diet. Secondly, it can help create the economic conditions by which parents are able to lift themselves out of poverty. And, thirdly, it should regulate the food market to ensure accurate nutritional advice is available for parents and schools to make informed choices about the meals they offer.

Oh, and fourthly, it can quit trying to nationalise every aspect of this country’s public life.

Mr Blair, we are told, is worried about his legacy. He is concerned he frittered away his first two terms’ rule, and is now resolutely determined to make amends. His sights now are set fixedly on “change-making” in this Indian summer of his premiership.

What he fails to appreciate (indeed, has never understood) is that he and his Government cannot, single-handedly, be “change-makers”. Holding onto power for another four years will not embed his reforms in the public sector unless he learns to devolve responsibility to – and learns to trust – those whose job it is to run the system, and who will be running it when he’s long gone.

Such trust is not unconditional. The public sector must, in turn, be willing to accept that it is accountable both for the quality of services it delivers, and for the money it spends. Mr Blair has been quite right to champion the importance of competition in achieving these twin aims. But his determination to hug power so tightly to the centre has constricted the development of any meaningful local accountability. He needs to learn the “patient courage” to let go; to recognise that mistakes will happen; that lessons will be learned from those mistakes; and that this is how real changes are really made.

It is New Labour which now faces the biggest obesity problem. Daily this Government accretes new regulations, new powers and new laws, hoping desperately to flatten any problems in its path beneath an avalanche of well-meaning statutes. Diet Labour has become bloated: like Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, this Government is unable to stop gorging, devouring each and every opportunity to stuff the body politic with another morsel of interference. “And finally, Prime Minister, a wafer thin ban.”

Mr Blair’s speech was rather dismissive of dreamers: they don’t build nations, he says. So I hope he will understand the importance of ‘dream-catchers’, which, American Indian tradition has it, filters a person’s dreams, allowing through only the good ones. Let’s hope the next time Mr Blair dreams up a new way to centralise power, it’s caught before he wakes up.