Ed Miliband’s Southwark Problem

An expensive promise of Council-funded gym membership for all undermines Labour’s fragile economic strategy 

As often as he can, Ed Miliband likes to remind us that we’re in the middle of a ‘cost of living crisis’. His strategy is clear: by identifying the problem, Ed is hoping he can position himself as the man with the solution.

And his message resonates with a lot of people for whom the cost of living crisis is real. Over the past five or six years many people have experienced a fall in their standard of living and, in the run up to next year’s General Election, Mr Miliband intends to pin the blame on the Conservative Party. Making that charge stick is the first part of Miliband’s economic strategy. The second (and hardest) part is to convince the public that he and the Labour Party have a credible response.

This strategy becomes harder and harder as the UK economy gets stronger and stronger. And sadly for Mr Miliband, recent evidence doesn’t help: UK unemployment is currently at a five year low; for the first time in six years wage rises have caught up with inflation; the IMF is now predicting the UK economy will be the fastest-growing in the G7 this year; and by the time of the election next year, disposable incomes are predicted to be higher than they were at the time of the last election in 2010.

In response to this, it would be safe to assume that the guardians of Labour’s economic policy are keeping their people on a short leash making sure all MPs, councillors and Party spokespeople portray Labour as the party of fiscal discipline and good financial stewardship. If that is the case, the Labour-led Southwark Council didn’t get the memo.

In their recently-published manifesto, the Southwark Labour Party has pledged to provide council-funded swimming and gym membership for every Southwark resident. No, you didn’t misread that. If you live in Southwark, the Labour council will pay for your gym membership, no questions asked.

The reason given for the policy is to remove “the barriers that prevent people in Southwark from getting fit and leading healthy and active lives.” While this is certainly a worthwhile goal, I think Labour has overlooked an important point. Southwark is home to some amazing outdoor space including Peckham Rye park, which is not only beautiful (I’m biased, it’s my local park), but also offers a free-to-use outdoor gym. Given that Peckham Rye is just one of more than 100 public parks available to Southwark residents, it’s hard to see any “barriers” preventing people from getting fit.

Described on the Southwark Labour website as a “ground-breaking commitment”, the estimated cost of the policy is £6 million. In making the announcement, the leader of Southwark Council Peter John said, “I recognise that we will be implementing this proposal against a tough economic backdrop…” and yet Southwark Labour still thinks this is a good way to spend £6 million of the Council budget.

I wonder if Southwark Labour stopped to think about what else £6 million could pay for in Southwark. Bear in mind that the London Borough of Southwark has the second-highest proportion of 19 year olds lacking level three qualifications, and where two-thirds of wards have a child poverty rate of more than 25%, and where nearly three-quarters of wards have an above-average proportion of working-age adults claiming out-of-work benefits.

For those interested in what else £6 million can buy you in Southwark, my colleagues and I in the Camberwell & Peckham Conservative Association did the calculations: 232 nurses, 220 new teachers, 298 classroom assistants, or 428 nursery places.

It’s important to encourage an active population especially among pensioners, but Southwark already provides those over 60 with access to local gym classes for just £1. What’s more, there is already a policy in place for low income (or no income) residents to qualify for reduced prices on gym membership.

It’s worth mentioning too that Labour’s new policy is hugely unfair on private leisure centres and gym companies most of whom will be driven out of Southwark as residents inevitably opt to use the gyms for which they don’t have to pay. If Labour intend on expanding this policy into other areas, the effect on private leisure centres could be disastrous.

This leads to a wider question of whether this is official Labour policy? If it is, then we can fairly assume that other Labour-run councils around the country will follow suit. But why stop at gym membership? If the aim is to get people more active, how about free running shoes for all? I could do with a new tennis racket, perhaps the council will pay for that!

As I said at the start, Mr Miliband’s challenge ahead of the 2015 General Election is to persuade the public that Labour can be trusted with the nation’s finances. Offering to pay for everyone’s gym membership won’t help him achieve that.

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