Several months ago, I wrote how Andy Burnham would seek to make Labour the party of anti-reform, placing party politics above the need to find genuine solutions to reforming the NHS. This prediction has proved correct: to listen to Andy Burnham, you would be forgiven for thinking that he was never a keen Blairite reformer of our public services. As Secretary of State for Health, he helped oversee an expansion of new providers in the NHS, particularly Independent Treatment Centres, the same expansion that this government backs, and that he now derides as privatisation. It was Andy Burnham who was happy to back an increase of £10 billion going to the private sector, between 2006-2010. It was Andy Burnham who fought an election on a manifesto pledge to ”support an active role for the independent sector working alongside the NHS in the provision of care, particularly where they bring innovation.”
What a difference opposition makes. One of his first actions as Shadow Secretary was to fly in the face of expert consensus and declare that it was ‘irresponsible to increase NHS spending in real terms’, turning against the Coalition's real-terms increases in NHS spending, despite knowing that the NHS is facing the toughest efficiency program in its history. He proved that he and Labour would rather see money spent on the existing bureaucratic and manager-led structure of the NHS than an increase in the funds available for frontline care. In his rush to oppose any change whatsoever, Burnham has even set himself against the current transitional structure, which the British Medical Journal describes as, "leaner and less costly than any the NHS has known in the past two decades".
Burnham and Labour have set their face against an NHS that is centred around the needs of the patient, precisely what the Coalition's reforms seek to achieve. They have become the party of anti-reform, anti-competition, anti-choice, and above all, anti-patient. Putting the appropriate name to this shameful display of opportunism would be ruled unparliamentary language, were we in the House of Commons. But as Andy Burnham said last week, "there has to be some integrity otherwise you will come a cropper." He could do worse than heed his own advice.
We must fight Labour's shameless opportunism in sacrificing the need to reform the NHS into a party political gambit. Reform is always unpopular, and always will be: change is frowned upon, just as the NHS was frowned upon by the British Medical Association when it was established. But we cannot allow vested interests to derail the NHS: reform is not an option if we are to ensure the long-term survival of the NHS, which is about to be threatened by a perfect storm of an ageing population and a boom in chronic illness and lifestyle-related diseases unless change happens now.
We cannot allow Labour, from the comfort of opposition, having abandoned their commitment to reforms that are so desperately needed, to destroy our health service through inaction and not gripping the nettle of reform. To listen to the siren voices of the left would simply allow the NHS to be dashed upon the rocks. This isn't Labour's NHS, it isn't the BMA's NHS, it belongs to the patients who rely on its service being free at the point of need, and who deserve to have a greater say and freedom in the choice and quality of their treatment. And as Conservatives, we need to fight for them and the reforms that they and the NHS need now.