Whatever MPs of different sides of the House think about the future of the NHS, there’s no denying that we need change – and fast – to safeguard the NHS and the principle of free universal healthcare that underpins it. With an ageing population and medical treatments becoming more expensive by the year, we desperately need a modern NHS that can adapt to what patient’s need and deliver the efficiencies we all know are required.
The Prime Minister couldn’t be clearer: “we save the NHS by changing it. We risk its long-term future by resisting change now.” Even Ed Miliband accepts that doing nothing is not an option. In a speech to the RSA earlier this year, he admitted that “to protect the NHS is to change it… to create an ever better health service, change will be essential.” The only problem is Labour Party don’t know what kind of change they want.
We can all agree on the challenge – but proposing a solution is what leaders do. Since writing the Labour 2010 Manifesto that committed to cutting the NHS, Ed Miliband hasn’t announced a single policy to improve or protect the NHS for the future.
The truth is Labour currently have no solutions. Now that isn’t particularly striking, given that it is the case in almost every policy area. What is striking, though, is that when it comes to the NHS, they haven’t even started to figure out how to find them.
Look at the evidence: to map out his Party’s future direction, Ed Miliband has initiated 19 policy forums covering a huge range of areas from education and welfare to defence and foreign policy. But not a single one of them covers the NHS.
That is a startling omission by any reckoning and it has now been compounded by the publication of The Purple Book – an extremely significant, new Labour-leaning contribution to Labour Party politics authored by a range of senior figures, including Shadow Health Minister Liz Kendall. Again – 300 pages but not a single one dedicated to the future of our health service.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by Kendall’s silence. In 2008, she wrote passionately in favour of patient choice stating that voluntary and private groups ‘provide extra capacity and innovation to the NHS and can help challenge under-performing parts of the system’. She even argued that greater choice of providers has been ‘used to tackle health inequalities’, improving patient outcomes for the poorest people in the UK. Statements which chime with the coalition’s reforms.
So let’s be clear – Labour are split on the NHS. They spent the last decade inching closer and closer to an NHS that finally puts patients at the centre of decision-making. Now they have the opportunity to deliver genuine patient choice and Ed Miliband and Shadow Health Secretary John Healey have run a mile. It’s reactionary politics at its worst.
Kendall is not alone appearing to subscribe to patient choice. Former Blair adviser Professor Julian le Grand, former Labour Health Ministers Lord Darzi and Lord Warner, former Labour MP-cum-GP Commissioner Howard Stoate, and even Tony Blair himself have all endorsed the principles of these changes – some have even helped make them a reality.
They have all fallen victim to the increasingly obvious truth that Gordon Brown’s ‘the state knows best’ orthodoxy is prevailing in the Labour Party. In Wales, the Labour Government have even taken the absurd decision of spending £1 million building an NHS fertility unit right next to a private provider that currently treats NHS patients at NHS prices – and this at a time of Labour’s unprecedented Welsh NHS cuts. No wonder then that Liz Kendall daren’t even sketch out a vision. To paraphrase Mark Twain, better to remain silent and look like you disagree with your boss, than to speak and remove all doubt.
Whatever the reason for Labour’s continued silence on the future of the NHS, the implication is clear: not only do they currently have no credible plan to safeguard the NHS for future generations, they have not even begun to sketch out what such a plan might look like. Until they actually figure out whether or not they believe in patient choice, increased investment and improved accountability, nobody should trust Labour with the NHS.