Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Labour needs to realign its attacks on NHS...

At this morning’s press conference Ed Miliband faced accusations that he was “jumping on the bandwagon” by criticising the Government over its NHS reform.

The press conference was certainly conveniently timed to coincide with the day the Royal College of Nursing passed a motion of no confidence in Health Secretary Andrew Lansley.

But coming to the debate late is not the party’s problem. There’ve been Labour people firing attacks against the reforms for months – in particular Liz Kendall, the junior minister (pictured below) behind the Opposition’s assault on key ‘competition’ clauses of the legislation.

The problem is with the substance of their attack and the position from which they’re attacking. Firstly, and this is admittedly quite a tough one to avoid, they are mired in the detail.

Most people in the country don’t understand the structure of the NHS, they don’t know what commissioning is, they don’t know what the reforms mean and so they can’t hope to understand a critique of them.

When journalists think their readers will not take an interest in something that is overly complex – like an Opposition opposing Government legislation in highly technical terms – they will not write about it.

Hence it has taken severe opposition from the medical profession to give hacks something to write about, and a way into the story.

The second issue is the uncertainty about where Labour’s own plans for the NHS would have ended up.

Many on the left of Labour opposed Blairite marketisation of the NHS because they believed it would lead to privatisation – the charge now levied at Cameron’s reforms.

And let’s not forget (the Tories certainly won’t let us) that Labour's 2010 manifesto also states “patients requiring elective care will have the right, in law, to choose from any provider who meets NHS standards of quality at NHS costs”.

Labour is not against a degree of marketisation in the NHS and it would be wise for the party to be true to its manifesto and acknowledge that if they want their attacks to have credibility.

What they really need here is a degree of triangulation – a dirty Blairite word in Labour circles. They need a plan that proposes reform to the NHS, but in a uniquely Labour way.

Their line should be ‘the Tories want to privatise the NHS, unions want to leave things as they are – we want measured change to get efficiency, but only if the services most dear to people are protected' i.e. kept under state control.

Flesh out a little detail and maybe they’ll have a chance of being seen as a party that’s ready to jump into Government, rather than a party that jumps on to bandwagons.

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