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What do the manifestos mean for cancer?

by Ian Caleb | In depth

18 June 2024

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A sign with the text 'General Election 2024' in front of Big Ben
Shutterstock/WD Stock Photos


Manifestos are one of the major milestones of any election campaign. When political parties set out their proposed programmes, they are making a statement of intent not only for what they want to fix, improve or overhaul, but also their vision for what the country could be.  

We think having a manifesto with a clear vision of what needs to be done, a roadmap for how to get there and the policy to back it up is vitally important – and that’s why we made our own. 

Beating cancer starts with action. In our Longer, better lives Manifesto, we set out five pledges we believe all parties should consider and commit to in the next Parliament.  

The five pledges in Longer, better lives

  1. Back research: Set out a plan to close the more than £1bn funding gap for research into cancer over the next decade.
  2. End cancers caused by smoking: Raise the age of sale of tobacco and fund a world-leading programme of measures to help people who smoke to quit.
  3. Drive earlier diagnoses: Implement proven measures, including a lung screening programme, to diagnose cancers early and reduce inequalities in access.
  4. End the waits: Ensure cancer wait time targets are met across England.
  5. Lead on cancer: Publish a long-term cancer strategy for England and Establish a National Cancer Council, accountable to the Prime Minister, to drive cross-government action on cancer.  

With those pledges in mind, we wanted to take a quick look at some of the highlights of what the three major UK-wide political parties have committed to deliver this week.  

Science, research and the £1bn funding gap 

Cancer research can be the beating heart of the ambition to make the UK a leading science and research power. As well as transforming outcomes for cancer patients, it has a vital role to play in boosting economic growth. However, excluding industry funding, 62% of cancer research in the UK is funded by charities. This means cancer research is strongly dependent on public donations, and our analysis suggests there needs to be an increase in cancer research funding of more than £1bn by 2033 just to keep pace with inflation and increases in cancer cases. 

We believe within a year of a general election, the UK Government should work with industry, research funders and research charities to set out a plan to at least close this gap. There has been no explicit manifesto commitment to do this from any of the major parties. We will look to work with all parties and the next UK Government on this plan as a priority in the next parliament.  

However, all parties did stress the importance of the R&D environment, and all made commitments on how they would address its funding. 

The Conservatives have committed to increase public spending on R&D to £22 billion a year by the end of the Parliament, up from £20 billion this year. While in theory this is a positive move, it is a revamp of a previous 2027 target set out by the party in Government. We will also have to see how much of this increase is earmarked for areas such as defence, which has received a significant commitment as an R&D priority. 

The party has also committed to maintain R&D tax credit relief, which could help create stability and consistency for investment. The pledges to bolster our life sciences sector are also welcome, but there was limited detail on how the party intends to support a ‘well-equipped’ MHRA and research into new treatment, or how it will secure more commercial clinical trials. 

Labour recommitted to setting out a new industrial strategy, including a plan for the life sciences sector, and replacing short funding cycles for 10-year budgets. Highlighting the UK’s excellent research institutions as giving the UK an advantage is very positive, but while we welcome the stability offered by long-term funding, it is currently not clear if this would result in more funding for research over that period. 

There was also a welcome commitment to maximising the UK’s potential to lead the world in clinical trials by speeding up recruitment and giving more people a chance to participate. There was also a recognition of the need to work with universities to create a secure future for higher education – a vital part of the life sciences ecosystem. 

The Liberal Democrats set out that they are aiming for at least 3% of GDP to be invested in research and development by 2030, rising to 3.5% by 2034. The 3.5% target would be incredibly positive and would put us in line to lead the G7 in research intensity, but there is currently more detail needed as to how this figure would be achieved. 

The party has also called for a Cancer Survival Research Act, which would require the Government to coordinate and ensure funding for research into the cancers with the lowest survival rates. This is a policy that could help tackle the barriers that have held up progress against these cancers and would need to be a long-term endeavour that recognised the challenges in infrastructure, capacity and more. 

Prevention and ending cancers caused by smoking 

Our Smokefree UK campaign is about creating a smokefree generation in the UK, helping people who smoke to quit and putting an end to the 150 cancer cases caused by smoking every day. It was a momentous moment for public health in the UK when the Tobacco and Vapes Bill was announced and received real support from all parties, and an extremely disappointing moment when the general election meant the bill did not survive the ‘wash-up’ process in Parliament. 

We want the next UK Government to bring this bill back at the first possible opportunity, and we were pleased to see the Conservatives directly commit to this in their manifesto, as well as Labour committing to ensure ‘the next generation can never legally buy cigarettes’ alongside banning vapes from being branded and advertised to appeal to children. That policy was echoed by the Liberal Democrats, who committed to introduce regulations to halt the use of vapes by children, as well as the introduction of a new levy on tobacco company profits to help fund healthcare and smoking cessation services, which is a proposal we featured in our own manifesto 

In other prevention measures, the Conservatives pledged to continue to tackle childhood and adult obesity and legislate to restrict the advertising of products high in fat, salt and sugar. This echoes one of the priority calls in our Longer, better lives manifesto, but legislation on this must be passed swiftly to avoid further delays in this important measure being implemented.  

Labour has committed to banning advertising junk food to children – as with the Conservative manifesto’s commitments on advertising, this is a call we support and want to see implemented without delay – part of an ambition to ‘raise the healthiest generation of children in our history’. In addition to their commitments on a smokefree generation, Labour also want to ensure all hospitals integrate ‘opt-out’ smoking cessation interventions into routine care. 

The Liberal Democrats have said they will increase the public health grant, with a proportion of the extra funding set aside so those experiencing the worst health inequalities can co-produce plans for their communities. We welcome this policy as the public health grant historically pays for local services such as those involved with helping people quit smoking, and reversing the cuts made to this grant from 2015 onwards has been a longstanding campaigning issue for Cancer Research UK.  

Finally, the Liberal Democrats would also establish a ‘Health Creation Unit’ to improve the nation’s health and tackle health inequalities. 

NHS and health services – ending the waits and driving earlier diagnosis 

Our analysis shows that, since 2015, more than 380,000 patients have missed the target for starting treatment more than 62 days after being urgently referred for suspected cancer. The latest cancer waiting time figures make for stark reading, and show the mounting pressure on the system. As our chief executive Michelle Mitchell said last week, each of these numbers represents a friend, family member, and loved one who is facing unbearably long waits for their treatment to begin, and experiencing stress and anxiety as a result. That’s why one of our core general election campaign calls is to end the waits and ensure that cancer wait time targets are met across England. 

We also want to make sure cancers are caught swiftly and at their earliest stage. Reducing the number of cancers diagnosed at a late stage is one of the most powerful things we can do to give patients more treatment options and improve cancer outcomes. But we’ll only reach our ambitions for earlier diagnosis with concerted action. Despite real efforts from the NHS, and positive steps like the phased introduction of targeted lung screening in England, we’ve seen little improvement in the proportion of patients diagnosed at an early stage in recent years. We’re off track to hit the NHS England target to diagnose 75% of patients at an early stage by 2028 – and to get there, we’ll need to diagnose 100,000 more patients at an early stage every year by then.  

The Conservatives have pledged to return wait time performance to the targets set out in the NHS Constitution by the end of the next Parliament – a welcome commitment aligned with our call to end the waits – and increase NHS spending above inflation in each year of the next government. On workforce, there is a recommitment to the NHS Long-Term workforce plan with a projection of 92,000 more nurses and 28,000 more doctors in the NHS by the end of the Parliament than in 2023.   

They have also committed to expanding Pharmacy First, with the ambition of freeing up 20 million GP appointments a year, and building 50 more Community Diagnostic Centres – including in underserved areas with the aim of conducting 2.5m checks a year – which would be a positive step to expand diagnostic capacity. They have also said they would fund technology to help clinicians read MRI and CT scans more quickly and accurately, and that they intend to implement a new medtech pathway so tech, including AI, is rapidly adopted throughout the NHS. They have also pledged to invest £3.4 billion in new technology to transform the NHS for staff and for patients, including by replacing outdated computers. These are all welcome commitments which could help support the NHS make better use of new innovations. 

Labour have also pledged to end the waits. Their plan to tackle waiting lists and ensure the NHS meets its performance standards involves measures such as creating 40,000 new afternoon and weekend appointments, utilising capacity in the private sector and sharing waiting lists between hospitals. On diagnosis, they are creating a ‘Fit for the Future’ fund to double the number of MRI and CT scanners and harness AI for diagnosis – positive investment in diagnostic capacity that will need to be matched by growing the NHS workforce to see the greatest benefit. 

Labour are also looking to train thousands more GPs alongside creating a Community Pharmacist Prescribing Service to ease capacity issues. As part of their life sciences plan, they will also develop an NHS innovation and adoption strategy, including a plan for procurement, and create a Regulatory Innovation Office to keep up with new developments in technology. We welcome this clear commitment to an NHS innovation and adoption strategy, which Labour had mentioned previously in their life sciences plan. 

The Liberal Democrats have pledged to recruit 8,000 more GPs and more cancer nurses. They also have plans to train, recruit and retain doctors, nurses and other NHS staff by measures including ending what they describe as the false economy of spending more money on agency workers and encouraging the use of flexible staff banks. In Longer, better lives, we underscored the importance of growing the NHS workforce and retaining current staff, so these are positive steps, but they must come alongside robust and regular workforce planning. 

The Liberal Democrats have also set out a guarantee that 100% of patients will be able to start treatment within 62 days of an urgent referral – though this is an incredibly tough goal and would come with potential risks – and pledged to halve the time for new treatments to reach patients by expanding the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s capacity. 

The need for a strategy to lead on cancer 

It is important to recognise all the measures announced by parties across the political spectrum in this election, both in their manifestos and on the campaign trail, are designed to demonstrate each party has a plan for cancer. This includes the Conservatives reiterating their commitment to a Major Conditions Strategy which includes cancer alongside other diseases, Labour communicating their aim to ensure their policies mean there are ‘fewer lives lost to the biggest killers’ such as cancer, and the Liberal Democrats bundling their announcements together as a £4bn ‘plan for cancer’. 

The best way to achieve the transformational change needed is through a long-term, fully funded strategy to improve and reform cancer services in England and back cancer research across the UK. This would bring everything from early diagnosis measures and optimised cancer screening programmes to plans for reducing inequalities and understanding treatment variation into one linked-up strategy with a clear direction for how we ensure outcomes for cancer patients in the UK are among the best in the world. 

We were disappointed not to see the major parties explicitly include this vision in their manifestos. However, it is not incompatible with current manifestos or policies. We are calling on the next UK Government to publish a dedicated cancer strategy in their first year, as it is the best way to ensure cancers are diagnosed earlier and that everyone has the best treatment and the best chance of survival. 

In conclusion 

This general election needs to be a turning point for cancer. Nearly 1 in 2 people will get cancer in their lifetime and by 2040, the UK will see around half a million new cases diagnosed each year. That a huge challenge on its own, before you factor in the pressures on budgets, capacity and workforce hitting everything on the journey from lab bench to hospital bedside. 

However, this general election is also a real opportunity to transform cancer research and care in this country. We believe the next UK Government could set us on the path to preventing 20,000 cancer deaths every year by 2040. That means more cancers prevented, more life-saving research implemented, more people diagnosed and treated earlier –and, ultimately, more people living longer, better lives. 

Just because manifestos are milestones, it does not mean they are set in stone. All parties could do more in the years ahead whether they are in power or in opposition, with 400 MPs or 1. Saving lives needs to come before politics.  

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