Tories must beware the gap between rich and poor

Amidst the rapturous response to Leicester City winning the Premiership, a story perhaps slipped under the radar this morning. Which was unfortunate, because it was actually very important – not only because of its societal impact, but also because of how it might influence political communication and debate.

A new report has concluded that the gap in life expectancy has widened for the first time since the Victorian era. Or, to put it in the most basic terms, the gap between the life expectancy between rich and poor is increasing. If you’re better off, you can now expect to live up to 30 years longer than those on a much lower income.

At a face value, you’d probably find such a conclusion unsurprising. The rich living longer than the poor – a consequence of privilege, better life chances and resources – has been true for time immemorial. But this latest study concludes that the widening in life expectancies has been attributed by researchers to personal choices. The report, in essence, concludes that most of the public health changes that could be made to increase life expectancy across the population have been made. What’s left is what each person does, which impacts on whether they will live long or die young.

Again, this is probably unsurprising. We have comprehensive healthcare in the form of the NHS, while medical technology, knowledge of medicine and pharmaceuticals have all advanced. We’re capable of treating diseases that mere decades ago would have been fatal. Inevitably what’s left is how you look after yourself. If you have a poor diet, smoke, or are inactive, it will affect your life expectancy.

On balance, this conclusion should endorse the Government’s approach to public health, which has been predicated on encouraging responsible personal choices. But such a conclusion misses the problems this report could cause a Conservative government.

Questions can be asked as to what more government departments and agencies, under the direction of Conservative ministers, can do to encourage healthy choices. But more damaging to ministers is the way this report’s conclusions could be spun by political opponents, who could be encouraged to highlight these findings as a further example of the Tories working for the rich at the expense of the poor.

Such a narrative would be unfair – this report is, after all, based on years on research. But don’t be surprised if it forms part of the political debate in the weeks and months ahead.