Keir Starmer’s Labour is ahead in the polls, but there are still doubts about whether his party has concrete policy proposals which can attract voters once they are in front of the ballot box. The question on everyone’s mind has been whether Labour’s lead should be attributed to the Conservatives self-destructing rather than anything positive or meaningful in the opposition’s offering. A major area of concern is the health service and the future of vaping in the UK.
With Starmer’s announcement of a “Take Back Control” Bill, it seems his team are aware he has to reassure Red Wall voters to get them back in the fold.
However, there is something sclerotic about Labour’s approach. Wes Streeting, Shadow Health Secretary, hinting that the private sector could be more involved in the health service is a dog whistle to disaffected Conservatives. But, it would appear he has abandoned Labour’s traditional working-class support with his comments on tobacco and nicotine policy.
Speaking to Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday, Streeting expressed his admiration for the de facto prohibition of cigarettes. “As the son of smokers, I hated the smell of cigarette smoke growing up,” he sneered. “I’d like to see it phased out altogether . . . it would make such a transformational impact on the health of individuals and on the health of the nation as a whole.”
Streeting was referring to a policy enacted into law in New Zealand which decrees that nobody born after 2008 will ever be legally permitted to buy cigarettes, suggesting that it would be a good idea in the UK too.
This jars heavily with the fact that most adults who smoke (more than 7 million) live in lower socio-economic areas – many of them in the Red Wall. Just over 25 per cent of the adult population in Blackpool smoke compared with 4.2 per cent in Richmond. If Streeting’s intention was to signal that Labour is now officially the party of Metropolitan elites, he could not have made it clearer.
There are numerous reasons why it is folly to copy the New Zealand policy. For one, New Zealand is an island which is over 2,500 miles from the nearest land mass of Australia. The UK is only 22 miles from a plethora of countries which could adequately supply a huge black market in tobacco products. Even if the New Zealand experiment – and that is exactly what it is – were to succeed, it is short-sighted to expect the same success in the UK.
Streeting’s policy proposal becomes even more half-baked when you consider he has a similar aversion to safer alternatives to smoking. Interviewed in The Times, he says “I’m deeply anxious about the fact that having reduced smoking, particularly among young people, we’ve sleepwalked into the growth of a new industry in vaping,“ seemingly oblivious that the growth of vaping has contributed to the declines he is so happy to see.
“My instinct is to take the same approach with vaping as we did with smoking in terms of packaging and marketing,” he worries, “because I’m concerned that the vaping industry is now growing exponentially and there may well be risks associated with it that are not yet clear.”
One wonders if, as shadow health secretary, he has noticed that vaping is recommended by the NHS and is recognized as the most popular and successful smoking cessation tool in the UK. And, vaping far outstrips the efficacy of pharmaceutical nicotine replacement therapy.
Based on nothing but myth and superstition, his solution to this success is to make the products anonymous and invisible to people who smoke.
Seven million smokers, and 4.3 million vapers (mostly situated in working class communities) will not be enamoured with Streeting’s proposals. Unions will most certainly object to shop staff being criminalised for not distinguishing between a 29-year-old and a 30-year-old.
Nicotine has been used by humans for over 12,000 years. It is Quixotic to try to eradicate it and foolhardy for a Labour politician to attack his party’s traditional voter base when his leader is attempting to assure voters he has credible evidence-based policies.