LibDem mental health policy: good policy, problematic politics

Giving mental health issues parity of esteem with physical health issues is an idea that has been creeping up the Liberal Democrat policy agenda and looks like being a ‘big idea’ in Nick Clegg’s speech to Glasgow conference tomorrow.

It’s good health policy. In fact, it’s very good health policy – because the National Health Service is really the National Physical Health Treatment Service. Neither prevention nor mental health have been at its core.

It’s also classic Liberal Democrat policy: take an idea that has good evidence, which has been slowly garnering wider social acceptance but is still a long way off the centre of the political agenda, and make it a headline policy that ends up shifting the political agenda with all parties adopting it.

It is also, unfortunately, a classic example of the problem with Liberal Democrat policies I talked about in The opinion poll crosstabs lie: or why policy isn’t what Lib Dems need to concentrate on.

Taking mental health seriously gets good results in market research. It touches many people’s lives, making it a political idea that cuts through effectively to a public often uninterested in party politics. But it’s not a big vote winner for the Liberal Democrats.

The reason? For people to vote Lib Dem on the basis of this policy requires people to believe the Liberal Democrats will implement it – that the party is effective, can be trusted and has a political future. No surprise I agree with all three of those conditions, but many members of the public do not – and that’s what the party needs to address.

Talking worthy moves on mental health doesn’t really address any of the three, save in the small way that it can be shown to be a development of what the Liberal Democrats – Nick Clegg and Norman Lamb in particular – have been doing in government:

So a good policy, but not a big idea that will help revive the party’s political fortunes. For that the party has to look elsewhere.

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