What to do with an unorthodox opposition? Despite their new found freedom, the Tories seem daunted, while Labour is fixated on caricatures
As the traditional party conference season moved to a close, it struck me that a lot of what I had been hearing from politicians and their allies could be classified as either complacent, in the case of newly re-elected Tory ministers, or hysterical, in the speeches of their opponents.
Britain is neither as good nor as bad as they keep telling us. Is end of life care here really the best in the world, as the Economist Intelligence Unit recently suggested? Well, fancy that! It makes a change from encircling gloom.
‘Politics is like a seesaw: it needs weight at both ends to work properly’
In the NHS context that concerns us here, it would be fair to exempt Norman Lamb from the gloomster strictures. By general consent, the former health minister – he saved his Norfolk seat but lost his job – is a decent chap; even Jeremy Hunt has been gracious about their partnership.
In a thoughtful conference speech in Bournemouth, Lamb warned against the bed blocking damage being done by cuts to social services, but urged a national conversation in which the need for both “more resources and change” are recognised. He favours a ringfenced health and social care tax – short sighted in my view.
In the strange euphoria of its Brighton conference, almost happy to have lost the election to get Jeremy, Corbynite Labour paid lip service to reform of practice and the exponential gains that tech innovations can provide. But the message was overwhelmingly negative: the Cameron government has a barely concealed agenda to privatise and shrink the NHS, nibbling away at services that are free at the point of use, to fatten its private healthcare donors.
That’s a caricature of the demand driven crisis we all know the service faces and it impedes clear thinking.
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Fear of freedom
I think Jeremy Corbyn is a nice but naïve man who is busy handing the next election to the Conservatives. It seems strange to report that the Tories appeared rather daunted by the prospect of incompetent opposition, partly because they fear it will provoke their own Euro headbangers to revolt, partly because being in coalition deflected the blame. Now they have no excuse, yet they seem unsure what to do with all that new “freedom” to govern alone.
‘Healthcare is not a topic about which Heidi Alexander claims much expertise’
Again, fairness requires me to exempt Heidi Alexander, MP for Lewisham East since 2010 and the new shadow health secretary, from charges of Corbynmania. By temperament a happy warrior, and an Andy Burnham supporter for leader, Alexander hasn’t said much yet.
Healthcare is not a topic about which she claims much expertise – she’s been a professional politician, Westminster aide or councillor since her mid-twenties. But she’s one of those MPs arguing that Labour’s “brand is broken” and the party needs to broaden its appeal, which doesn’t sound very Corbynish.
What will happen? I don’t know and doubt if any Labour strategist, left or right, does either. This is scarily uncharted water. Politics is like a seesaw: it needs weight at both ends to work properly.
At the Manchester conference fringe, which got the other Jeremy into trouble over that Chinese work ethic remark (he has taken to apologising for “not being the most interesting Jeremy in British politics”), the health secretary said he had assumed Tony Blair had won the battle for market facing solutions in 1997. But now it will have to be fought again.
‘Sunday admission death rates are unacceptable’
That point was echoed at another fringe meeting, where Stephen Dorrell said he loved attending Labour conferences and saying “I’m a Blairite”. It made them crosser every year.
Dorrell was on a local government panel discussing integration of devolved health and social care. It sounded chaotic but dynamic, and will need more money if the opportunity is not to be wasted in Manchester and other cities newly “liberated” by George Osborne.
In Whitehall, Blue Jeremy’s vantage point is loftier: he prefers to talk about the Ofsted style impact of Care Quality Commission inspections, exposing unacceptable laxity in the system, seemingly unperturbed by CQC overload or the devastating impact of unfair special measures at prestige laden Addenbrooke’s.
‘Universalise the best’
Hunt has dug up a forgotten quote from Nye Bevan – saying he wants to “universalise the best” – and recalls a senior official telling him when he took over from Andrew Lansley in 2012 that “if it’s less than £100m, we don’t really worry about it”. They do now.
In his contract battle with junior doctors (consultants have agreed to negotiate), I have some sympathy with the minister, having worked very unsocial hours all my life. Sunday admission death rates are unacceptable.
‘I have some sympathy with the minister over his battle with junior doctors’
But if GPs or hospital doctors respond to ever increasing demands of 24/7 working by emigrating to New Zealand (the country has its own problems too, chaps), or taking early retirement, then market facing ministers have to respond to stem rising shortages.
When Osborne’s last budget capped tax deductible pension pots at £1m, no one asked: “Won’t that encourage more harassed GPs to retire early?” It’s called the law of unintended consequences. Has anyone checked the long range weather forecast? A bad winter lurgy could make even Red Jeremy’s warnings sound mild.
Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian