I had the pleasure of going to two events at the weekend. On Saturday, I went to the event at Trafalgar Square for the #999CallfortheNHS #DarloMums arriving after their 300 mile-long walk across the country. Thanks to Jos Bell for inviting me, for which I am deeply grateful. The following day, I went to the National Health Action Party for their Annual Conference in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London. I enjoyed that afternoon as well.
The National Health Action Party are putting up parliamentary candidates for the General Election 2015, the vast majority of whom are known friends of mine. I am proud of them, and I really do wish them well. They give people a chance to vote for a party which has an established position against privatisation. The party is led by Dr Clive Peedell and Dr Richard Taylor, and they clearly have a strong position against privatisation of the NHS, and various manifestations of the NHS market including the private finance initiative and the EU-US free trade treaty.
They have made substantial progress this year. One of their challenges as a new party is having people recognise what they stand for, and this is clearly going to be hampered if the mainstream media do not give them a fair opportunity. Nonetheless, there have been noteworthy successes, such as appearances on Sky, LBC and “The Evening Standard”. And there is no doubt about the intensity of emotion in support of the National Health Service. A challenge is funding, and, whilst the party is in fact running a healthy surplus, having more funds will allow them to present a greater number of election candidates; an inevitably costly process.
It was very nice to chat with Dr Clive Peedell both before and after the event. I understand the misgivings about previous Labour policy, and indeed whether Labour can be said to be doing enough on abolishing the market. There are clearly strands of Labour policy which made room for private providers, but likewise it is also the case that the Lewisham judgment in the high court clearly stated that legislation under the present Government had been a clear departure from previous law under the last Labour government.
So it is not a surprise that many of the key pledges of the National Health Action Party will also be of concerns of some Labour voters with a keen interest in NHS policy. A slide of these were presented yesterday.
It is easy to underestimate the pernicious effect that the private finance initiative has had. Whilst it may have had good intentions of improving the infrastructure of the health service, one cannot deny how ‘cost savings’ allegedly in places have led to dangerous threats to patient safety, such as hospital infection, or in actual staffing numbers cannot be tolerated, not least by the general public and the clinical regulators. Whilst not all the problems can be held responsible from that desk behind Whitehall, the removal of the Secretary of State’s duty for the NHS is clearly symbolic. And Clive Efford MP perhaps would do well to learn from Peter Roderick, a public interest lawyer by training, and Prof Allyson Pollock, a world respected expert in public health.
Andy Burnham MP undoubtedly has a lot of goodwill too, and it is now likely that Labour will be the largest party of an incoming government at least under the leadership of Ed Miliband; they could win an outright majority, also, if the policy mix is right. Burnham has explicitly stated his desire to repeal the Health and Social Care Act (2012), but it is clear that a huge amount of work will be necessary to clear up the regimes for Trusts in financial distress, and for getting rid of competitive tendering tendering as being the default option.
It is not easy to let the Liberal Democrats ‘off the hook’, though it is clear that there are MPs such as Andrew George who have been strongly critical of the NHS reforms and indeed the “Bedroom Tax”. It is undoubtedly clear that the National Health Action Party will not be the main party forming Government next year, but they have never had aspirations to. They do allow the main political parties to be held to account, and their supporters are enthusiastic and well informed.
One of the critical tests for Labour will be letting go of the more neoliberal twangs to its policy, and to represent those people who had gone on the modern day NHS Jarrow march. It is not simply good enough to riposte every attack with ‘yeah but the NHS is free at the point of need’. There are genuine problems with solidarity, equity, justice, and comprehensiveness in current ethos, and a whole raft of problems which have arisen from indisputable marketisation and privatisation of the National Health Service.
It would be a mistake for Labour to discount the National Health Action Party as an insignificant blot on the landscape, when many of their concerns should be genuine concerns for Labour too. Andy Burnham is a highly skilled politician, but he has a strong vested interest in making a Labour government work properly for the NHS, and that might include for example not holding its staff to ransom yet again on a pay freeze. Andy as critical part of a Labour Government might wish to find a way to fund the NHS properly, especially since the economy is apparently making a recovery?
Whilst the present Coalition Government may seem ‘catastrophic’ to many of us, it has in fact been a blazing success for the Coalition parties. They have been able to do a lot of damage in the name of ‘austerity’. The evidence base for such policies is extremely poor, and indeed there is quite a lot of evidence that the welfare benefit ‘reforms’ have done a lot of damage to the mental health of citizens particularly those with disabilities.
Dr Clive Peedell has much to tell Andy, and – for what it’s worth – I do believe Andy needs to listen. And I have every confidence he will.