It’s been a telling few days in terms of NHS news – and one that demonstrates the central place that the NHS must play in Labour’s thinking and in its strategy for the next general election. And today has been a day that offers both hope and doubt about whether Labour leader Ed Miliband understands the need to grasp the NHS nettle and shake it in the faces of its Tory would-be destroyers.
First, the doubt. Two separate articles in today’s Guardian – one of the few newspapers not pushing Tory propaganda – gave conflicting messages about Ed’s position on the NHS.
The first article concludes that Ed Miliband was underlining his commitment to repeal the Tories’ disastrous Health and Social Care Act and calling on Labour councils to do everything they can to impede the progress of its effects. The second has him saying that Labour ‘would not “spend another” £3bn reversing the coalition’s controversial NHS reforms – despite having opposed their passage through parliament‘.
If a left-leaning newspaper can manage to take two opposing messages from Labour’s leader in the same day, it demonstrates that there is doubt whether Labour yet fully understands how central the NHS is going to be to the fight for the hearts and votes of the British people – or if it does, whether the party possesses the political will to say what needs to be said as clearly as it needs saying.
On today’s BBC News, commentators were quoting Labour insiders as saying they believed that the public is not yet convinced that Ed Miliband is a strong leader with a clear vision. The NHS represents Ed’s best opportunity not just to convince people about his strength and vision, but to do so on an issue that is going to be absolutely toxic for the Tories between now and the general election in 2015 or earlier – and, of course, to do the right thing in the process and save one of our greatest national achievements and many lives.
Earlier this week, BBC news ran headlines about the results of a poll it had commissioned, saying that 61% of people felt that the NHS would have to stop providing some services because of ‘rising costs and increased demand’. Of course, this begs all kinds of questions about how people would have responded if the question had been framed differently, but even more important were the questions that the BBC (which these days usually bows its knee to Tory interests) did not include in its broadcasts. Here are the key points:
56% do not even understand what the Tories’ NHS ‘reforms’ mean.
78% do not feel the government has done enough to inform people about the reforms and their impact
72% do not trust the government with the NHS
57% would oppose any change to the NHS that means currently free services would have to be paid for
61% do not believe it’s right for any hospitals to cut services in order to save money
The only good news for the Tories was that 57% say they don’t care whether services are provided by private companies as long as they continue to be provided free of charge.
That 57% is an extremely fragile figure, ready to collapse if people become aware that private companies can only be competitive and make profit if they cut wages, cut services, or ration treatments.
And they will become aware – no matter how much a tame BBC and complicit media try to keep it quiet. Just as the Tories can’t help themselves and keep letting the mask slip to reveal their real, toxic nature – Andrew Mitchell, Hunt/News International, Fox/Werrity, Cameron/Brookes and so on – private healthcare companies will be unable to restrain themselves from sucking even the marrow from the bones of the NHS in their eagerness to extract every percentage point of profit. It’s what they do. It’s in their nature – they can no more moderate themselves than a fox in a chicken coop.
It’s already begun. In just the last couple of days, stories have surfaced of:
– a 76-year old man with potentially-lethal meningitis being turned away from a privately-run ‘NHS’ walk-in centre because they’d exceeded their ‘quota’ and wouldn’t be paid for treating him
– 86% of GPs in Sussex having to tell patients they can’t be referred for needed treatment because of changes to cost guidelines
On top of this, as preparations accelerate for the full implementation of the Act next April, more and more stories will come to light such as the plan to make an emergency cut of £10m to NHS services in North Yorkshire, and it’s already reported that 42% of all NHS Trust financial directors believe that care is going to get worse.
The increase in such revelations is inevitable – because they’re an inevitable consequence of the toxic heart of the Tories and the inescapable, black logic of profit-lust in healthcare: patients untreated, corners cut and lives lost. The tragedy of the current situation is that such things will happen between now and the next election.
We can and must fight them with everything we’ve got in order to minimise them. But it would be inexcusable for Labour to risk allowing them to continue for longer by failing to position itself – now and with absolute clarity – as the party with a clear, unmistakable message: we will undo every damaging change done to the NHS by the Tories and their LibDem collaborators.
No hesitations or obfuscations. No ambiguous statements about ‘not spending £3bn’ to undo the consequences of the Act (if you mean you’ll find cost-effective ways of doing so, Ed, make it absolutely explicit so that potential followers as well as those who already understand the damage being done to the NHS and are depending on you for a clear commitment to reverse it). No pandering to markets and the city by cautious statements and talk of a ‘root and branch spending review’ (yes, Ed Balls, I mean you!).
No accepting the Tories’ premise that the fictitious ‘structural deficit’ exists (the only structural issue is ineffective taxation and the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of those who’ll exploit it).
In short, taking a clear, courageous stand and being ready to present a genuine, radical alternative – both as a world-view and as policies to achieve it. Most people know enough not to trust Cameron & co with the NHS or with anything else. They just need to see that there’s someone else to turn to who is prepared to say what they mean and mean what they say.
The NHS is Ed’s, and Labour’s, opportunity to step up and show yourself to be that person, be that party. And there’s the added benefit that it’s the right thing to do – it’s too precious not to fight tooth and nail for, too precious not to undo the damage done to it, whatever the cost, and too many lives depend on it.
The NHS is going to be the government’s poisoned chalice – the Toxic Tories can’t help themselves. For Ed Miliband and the Labour party, it’s a nettle that they need to grasp. If they’re brave and far-sighted enough to do so emphatically now, it will be their Holy Grail.