I’ve lost count of the number of times when the UK Labour Party have stated ‘only 24 more hours to save the NHS’. As somebody who has always voted for Labour in fact since 1992, I take no pleasure in saying that Labour now must prove that the NHS is safe in its hands.
If you believe that the NHS is a cherished institution, or even a ‘sacred cow’, with massive public goodwill, it might seem strange that the Secretary of State for health, Jeremy Hunt MP, plays so fast and loose with junior doctors’ pay. A reason that Jeremy Corbyn MP, the current leader of the opposition and leader of the Labour Party, is so despised, apart from not turning up to gala rugby matches or singing the national anthem, is that he has effectively torn up the rule book. It’s no longer a case of ‘balancing the books’ – and let’s face it Osborne has been dramatically unsuccessful in even doing that – but it’s a case of making sure the customer doesn’t get ripped off from rail privatisation or has a decent living wage.
A favourite line of attack for Progress, the think tank which caters well for Labour believers who believe in modernity, is that ‘money does not grow on trees’. This is of course a full throated lie when you factor in that George Osborne himself got out the printing press recently, and did rather well out of it.
It has been convenient to misquote Liam Byrne MP as ‘there’s money left’ to perpetuate the idea of ‘living within your means’. That is except for the investment bankers who were not living within their means, and had to suffer the indignity of one trillion pound of a State bailout to help subsidise their lavish bonuses and more.
The austerity in the NHS is better known as ‘efficiency savings’, except here money is leaking like a sieve. The Conservative mantra that you need a successful economy is utterly fraudulent when you finally acknowledge that national debt since 2010 has gone through the roof. It also becomes hollowed out when you consider the high number of NHS foundation trusts running a deficit, because they have not been – take a deep breath – given enough money to run the NHS.
This was of course the biggest lie about the word ‘sustainability’ which many came to know as code as ‘we don’t want to afford it’. This means that it became a tough public choice that we didn’t want to afford the pay of nurses or junior doctors, but we could somehow afford the unconscionable loan repayments to the City for shiny new PFI buildings.
The lack of ability of Labour, like the Conservatives, to do something about the private finance debt, not just talk about it in a public accounts committee, is staggering. The current crisis in agency staffing could have been totally avoided with better planning.
Jeremy Corbyn wishes to give an apology for the Iraq War. But this is not the only apology that Labour needs to make over policy, although other apologies are less serious. For ages, Labour peddled the myth that quality between autonomous foundation trusts could be driven up through competition. To acquire ‘foundation trust status’, NHS hospitals had to reach targets, and even if NHS CEOs ultimately failed they could move onto other equally lucrative posts.
To make the financial books balance however, it is sadly the case the legacy was that some Trusts did not run their operations safely. The issue of lack of planning, in an unsocialist way, also is evident in the way in which Labour embraced independent sector treatment centres; the argument ‘to increase capacity to deal with demand’ was an entirely synthetic one, given that the NHS has been increasing significantly in demand since 1946.
So it is quite possible that the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of Labour is a stop to ‘more of the same’. This entirely depends on how much Corbyn’s private views are tempered by his shadow cabinet, and Corbyn has tried to bring dissenters into his tent to manage the situation in the same way Abraham Lincoln had many years ago.
To give Burnham credit, there was the beginning of a discussion of bringing health and social care together. Such discussions have nonetheless failed to reconcile how an universal NHS system can be bolted onto a means-tested social care system. The relics of personal budgets, which also have been identified as a practical way of devolving cuts and rationing, continue in policy, and have been furthered rather than extinguished by recent legislation.
Labour itself did much to wreck social care with privatisation, and, whilst we have had relentless cuts in social care funding in recent years which have also affected the way in which the NHS works, the problems started a long time before 2010. But Labour has for me much to prove on the NHS. It’s a long time since ‘the spirit of 45′, but Labour cannot just function as a shrill shroud waving protest party. It needs to have, at last, a sensible debate about all these matters which have been festering for far too long.