The Budget: A red box full of tricks?
Theresa May has promised that “austerity is over”, and today we shall find out the truth as Chancellor Philip Hammond sets out his Budget. Ending austerity means a full commitment to restore the billions of funding taken from our schools, our police, our local services - as well as the NHS - and halting the Universal Credit roll out.
I don’t think there is a politician or a commentator in the land who thinks Hammond’s Red Box will deliver on that. This Budget will not mark the end of austerity. It’s not that it isn’t possible, it’s just that the ideology of the Tories and their weakness in Parliament makes radical change with Hammond and May impossible.
Britain has to survive and thrive in a fast changing world. We need to recast our political economy so that it empowers the next generation of workers whilst giving security - in its broadest sense - to our older and retired workers. If Labour can make a convincing case for how this will be done in a dynamic mixed economy, we will win.
Whatever the future holds, austerity will not end as long as Philip Hammond is Chancellor.Read more
Sweet taste of poison
Why can kids buy doughnuts in school canteens? Most people answer this question by saying “they can’t, can they?” Yet, they can and do, a lot of the time. You see, Jamie Oliver lost the battle to austerity.
The nutritional guidelines are only that, guidelines. There isn’t a mandatory obligation to provide good nutritious food on school menus and outsourced providers sell sugary products to max out on sales to an eager captive audience. Sure, they say they offer choice but what 11-year-old is going to swap chips, burger and a doughnut for salad and a few grapes? The answer according to a group of high school students I spoke to this week is hardly any.
We live in a sugar economy. It’s everywhere and in nearly every thing. From Kellog’s selling their crap packaged with cartoon monkeys to Coke sponsoring sporting events whilst breaking public health guidelines, these wretches are poisoning our kids with too much sugar.
I’m taking a deeper look at our sugar economy in the months ahead. Already I’ve found some great campaigns that encourage a nation of sugar addicts to kick the stuff.
You’ve heard of dry January? Well Southwark Council encourage “Fizz Free February”. Coke has nearly 7 teaspoons of sugar per can, so a child drinking a can a day can remove a kilogram of sugar from their diet in a month.
Well done Southwark. It’s a great campaign that my colleagues in Sandwell are considering emulating. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we can make Fizz Free Feb a national campaign? If there are any advertising guerrillas or digital creatives out there who fancy setting up a grass roots campaign, please contact me ASAP.
And if you’re a Labour Party member or councillor, do you fancy helping make it happen in your area? If so, please get in touch too.
Secrets, money and lies
It has been an unparalleled week on the cyber warfare front. On Monday former UK national security adviser Sir Mark Lyall Grant warned Russian cyber-attacks are now one of the great threats to the survival of liberal world order.
On Wednesday the Atlantic Council published a report entitled Democracy in the Crosshairs which explained how the current Russian regime and other authoritarian states seek to feed money into our politics to influence and subvert it.
Then on Thursday, in an unprecedented move, the Foreign Office publicly accused Vladimir Putin's military intelligence unit (GRU) of orchestrating a string of global hacks including the Democratic Party's HQ in 2016.
That was followed by Dutch detailing of the bungled GRU attempt to hack the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which was itself probing the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury. Later that day the US and Canada piled in with details of cyber assaults on FIFA and the World Anti-Doping Association among others..
Mocking headlines such as “Carry on Spying” and “The Novichuckle Brothers” that followed news of the Dutch debacle were mildly amusing. (Hats off here to the Bellingcat investigative site for its brilliant scoop.)
I am sure Putin is infuriated and, to a degree, humiliated. But let’s keep some perspective here. Putin is a global strategist and, as he surveys his map of the world, there will still be a broad smile on his face.
Putin is a global strategist and, as he surveys his map of the world, there will
still be a broad smile on his face.
His cyber warfare programme assisted the election of Donald Trump, leading to the US’s growing isolation amid deep-blade attacks on the liberal world order; while his other key strategy - to undermine the European Union - is progressing to plan with the the emergence of ultra-nationalists across the continent and, of course, our own Brexit.
The latter , as you know, concerns me gravely. Despite Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s fanfare in detailing the activity of Putin’s spies, we are still no nearer to learning about Russian efforts to meddle in our own politics.
We seem utterly reliant on the journalism of Carole Cadwalladr and the well-intentioned but toothless probing of the Electoral Commission to draw together the suspicious web of Leave.EU funding that swirls around Arron Banks and his Russian friends. The DCMS Select Committee has also called for confirmation of what action our security services are taking. Yet the silence from the UK government on these critical issues is deafening.
That’s why on Thursday I wrote to Jeremy Hunt to ask precisely what investigations are taking place into Russian attempts to influence the EU referendum, and if such investigations are not taking place, to ensure they are now put in place.
It's time we followed the money and the lies and held a Mueller-style inquiry into the subverting of our own democracy. I promise you I will not let this rest.
The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle
While taking part in a UK Music-organised pop quiz to celebrate today's National Album Day, the extraordinary global contribution of this country's music was to the fore.
In recent years it has been Adele and Ed Sheeran that have led the way. But whichever pick you take of all the many lists of all-time best albums, it will be festooned with records by The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd - and let's not forget the more recent contribution of bands and artists like Oasis, The Stone Roses, Amy Winehouse and Stormzy.
It's estimated that the UK music industry contributes a staggering £4.5 billion to our economy each year. Yet the future of this brilliant creative industry is in peril because of this government's blinkered approach to performing arts on the school curriculum.
This week a thoroughly depressing survey of schools by Sussex University suggested music lessons could soon be extinct due to the promotion of the narrow E-Bacc suite of academic subjects. The figures are startling.
The number of schools offering a music A-level had fallen by more than 15% in the past two years, there's a 10% fall in the number of students starting a GCSE music course since 2016, with fewer schools providing it as an option and some offering it only out of school hours.
In 2012-13 music was compulsory for 13- to 14-year-olds in 84% of schools, now that figure is just 47.5%. Eighteen per cent did not offer GCSE music at all; in some schools the subject was taught only as an “enrichment day” once a year. Staffing levels had fallen in nearly 36%, with 70% of surviving music specialists having to teach other subjects to fill the gaps.
Obviously the UK music industry is not all about pop and rock. How on earth is a state school ever going to offer the opportunity and nurture for a talent like the brilliant young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason in the future?
That's why Labour is committed to providing a £160 million arts premium for primary schools and has pledged to return performing arts and creative subjects back to the heart of the secondary curriculum.
Anyway I'm sure you want to know that my team fell short in the pop quiz, finishing valiant runners-up behind the pros from the BPI. They run the BRITS and therefore get paid to know all the answers to the questions.
For a bit of fun, I've set you a pop quiz this week. All the headlines on this week's newsletter are the titles of famous albums. See how many you can get. Answers next week!Read more
Despite all the commentator's expectations, Labour walked away from conference in Liverpool united on Brexit and with a radical portfolio of policies which have been widely-acclaimed across the party and by pundits.
In this interview with the Evening Standard I made it clear that one wing of the party needs the other for this broad church to be successful. Plurality is the only solution. It’s essential for everyone’s voice to be heard for us to be electorally successful. That’s the challenge that both Jeremy and I have to meet.
The contrast with this week's Tory conference in Birmingham which is already soaked in bitter squabbling over their ruinous Brexit plans alongside the back-stabbing of the PM is something to behold.
What’s in a name
I’ve decided, in response to some lovely emails, that I should give the newsletter a new title and design. This reflects the fact I always aim for my weekly musings to be not just about politics but also embracing the range of issues across my brief as digital, culture, media and sports lead for Labour.
I know it sometimes looks a bit idiosyncratic but I like its quirkiness. Sometimes I just like to share stories that have caught my eye. And the fact that you haven’t unsubscribed suggests to me you like that too.
I've given it the title Days Like This which, as you probably know, is a track from the great Van Morrison, one of my musical heroes. I think its positive outlook reflects my mood! But if you can think of a better title, let me know. And while I’ve been mucking about in spare moments with some design ideas (the headline is Futura for aficianados of fonts), I’d also be keen to consider alternatives. So, if you’re a great creative who has always wanted to design a newsletter, just email me your thoughts. And thanks in advance!
It was last summer, as I huffed and puffed the 76 steps to my Westminster office, that I realised the damage that I had done to my body and my health.
Overweight, deeply unfit, addicted to sugar and fast foods, it was little surprise when the doctor told me I had Type 2 diabetes.
I recalled overweight Labour politicians dying early in their 50s and 60s, and thought about whether I was actually going to see my two children grow into adults, or their children grow up.
I vowed to change my lifestyle and began reading up about nutrition, exercise and diabetes. I started by cutting out sugar, refined sugar, then all processed foods in plastic trays and many starchy carbs. I read Aseem Malhotra’s Pioppi diet and Michael Mosley’s diet books cover to cover, then all the scientific research they’d referenced. I’d bore friends to tears hovering over the ingredients labels in supermarkets.
Then I began to exercise. First walking, then cycling, then running, then boxing and then weight-training. None of it was easy but soon the weight started to fall off. I even bought Arnold Schwarzenegger’s encyclopedia of body building to help me when I started back at the gym after a thirty year interlude.
I’ve now lost 98lbs in weight. I don’t just feel healthier, but stronger, happier and mentally far more agile.
Today I am very happy to reveal that my Type 2 diabetes has been reversed, it’s in remission. No longer having to take medicines for diabetes is a joy. To all Type 2 diabetics I say: “Yes, we can.” Yet the tragedy for many Type 2 diabetics is that they don’t even know their condition is reversible, let alone how to achieve it.
I have been moved and inspired by the extraordinary public response and support for my personal battle. Hundreds of people have contacted me through emails and my social media channels to say how they have struggled with weight just like me. Some, I hope, I might have been able to help in return.
Through the journey of the last 12 months I have grown to the realisation that we have a whole nation battling similar weight and health problems. And it’s only going to get worse.
Approximately 14 million UK adults are obese. Around 15 million more are overweight. One third of our children are leaving primary school obese – if current trends continue half of all our kids will be obese by 2020.
The figures for obesity’s twin evil, diabetes, are shocking too. In 1998 just 3% of adults in England were diagnosed with diabetes. By 2016 that had doubled, with 7% of adults diagnosed.
Each year in the UK 24,000 people with diabetes die early. People with diabetes often develop blindness, kidney failure, heart attack, stroke, and dementia.
I think one of the key culprits for this enormous rise in obesity and diabetes is sugar and the sugar industry.
Children aged 4 to 10 are now estimated to eat 5500 cubes of sugar per year- that’s about 3.5 stone worth of sugar or the weight of an average three year old. Adults are eating even more.
The recommended daily sugar intake for an adult is no more than 30 grams. Yet a single can of coca cola contains 35 grams of sugar. Just one can takes you over the recommended daily limit.
Even trying to avoid sugar is difficult. Sugar is in places where we don’t expect to find it and where it does not need to be - cereals, milk products, crisps and yogurt. Even foods billed as ‘healthy’ like vitamin water and bran flakes contain added sugar. Where foods are labelled ‘low-fat’ too often extra sugar has been added to make up for the loss of taste.
With all the hidden sugar, conflicting health advice, ultra-processed food and misleading packaging people who want to get healthy have barely got a chance. When I walk around the supermarket now I just see aisles and aisles of food with little or no nutritional value that will make us unwell. It’s no surprise that so many people across the country struggle with their weight.
As with so many other things, obesity doesn’t affect everyone equally. If you are an adult living in the most deprived part of England you are 46% more likely to be obese than if you live in the richest part. You are also more likely to end up in hospital because of diabetes if you come from a poorer background than if you are well off.
For too long people who struggle with their weight have been branded lazy or greedy. The reality is that everywhere we go, whether to the supermarket, on the bus or listening to the radio in the car, we are bombarded with adverts for food that isn’t good for us. It’s time Government did something about it.
To me, the success of the Sugar Tax - for which then Tory Chancellor George Osborne should be given the credit - is an illustration that government can and should intervene if the food and drink industry won’t do it themselves. The big drinks companies fought the sugar tax tooth and nail, saying it wouldn’t work and cutting the sugar content of drinks wasn’t possible. Once the tax was introduced Ribenacut its sugar content by half, almost overnight.
I believe there are times when politicians of all sides must join forces to enact change. My experience of escaping Type 2 diabetes has given me a new mission to help others get healthy. We can’t afford to keep going as we are. The challenge is huge but generations will suffer if we fail to get a grip on the obesity crisis that threatens to engulf us.