Health will be one of the first issues the new Labour leader will have to respond to. With the party leadership election fast approaching, Ben Nunn gives his take on what angle the front runners might take
Let’s not delude ourselves. Labour leadership contests are not thoughtful policy debates.
Party members (declaration: I am one) are looking for someone who they like, who makes them feel good, and who they want to lead their party. They are not looking for someone who is going to give them answers to every question that might be posed over the next five years.
But health will be one of the early issues the new Labour leader will have to respond to.
‘Health is Labour’s strongest card but it failed to translate this into votes at the last election’
The NHS is likely to face another difficult winter and the financial outlook is dire. Health is Labour’s strongest card but it failed to translate this into votes at the last election.
The first time we might hear where the successful candidate stands on the issue of health will be in their victory speech in September. So, what might he or she say and what would they mean?
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Andy Burnham: I was right then, I am right now
Conference: “We are the party that created the NHS, the party that saved the NHS, and the party that predicted what five years of a Tory government would do to the NHS.”
Andy Burnham’s opposition to the Health and Social Care Act 2012 needs no introduction. The campaign gave him a platform as the defender (and potential protector) of the party’s most treasured creation. The deterioration of NHS performance standards and finances over the past five years is, Andy believes, a vindication of his stance during the last Parliament.
“As a Labour health secretary I made the NHS the preferred provider, as a Labour prime minister I would do so once again.”
‘Andy’s stance on the NHS as the preferred provider has earnt him many supporters’
Andy’s stance on the NHS as the preferred provider has earnt him many supporters in the membership and with the unions. Returning to this theme would be a nod to those that will have helped to elect him.
“We cannot win in 2020 unless we have the courage to be true to our convictions and ambitious in our offer to the country. That is why, as your leader, I will campaign for a National Health and Care Service.”
Burnham was clearly frustrated with how his plans for “whole person care” were watered down by the Miliband and Balls before the last election. He might have been accused of flip-flopping on recent issues, but his commitment to this agenda remains.
How he intends to fund it, however, needs answering.
Yvette Cooper: Invest to save
“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the thousands of doctors and nurses who work tirelessly for our NHS every day. But Cameron and Osborne are content with lumbering them with more debt and imposing them with a 10 year pay freeze.”
Yvette Cooper is an economist by training, a former Treasury minister, and someone who will understand the cost of an NHS overly reliant on agency staff because of a demoralised workforce. An early campaign for better pay for healthcare professionals is likely to get public and union backing.
‘Drawing on her position as a public health minister, expect Yvette can deliver value for money’
“Our health system must do more than treat; it must help to prevent and reduce the inequalities that cut through every town and city in our country.”
Drawing on her first ministerial position as a public health minister, expect Yvette to be an advocate for investing in public health measures that empower patients, improve health outcomes and - crucially - deliver value for money.
“A Labour Party must champion the digital and science revolution. A revolution that will help our NHS to deliver worldclass treatment and care to everyone.”
Yvette’s pledge for investment in the new economy has been a consistent theme of her campaign and something borne out of her time in the Treasury. The phrase might sound “wonkish”, but relating it back to healthcare can suddenly become far more meaningful.
Jeremy Corbyn: Back to the future
“I am proud to lead a party that founded the NHS in 1948 and brought the NHS back from the brink of collapse in 1997.”
Jeremy Corbyn might often disagree with Blair and Brown, but he remains loyal to many of the last Labour government’s achievements - particularly increases in NHS spending.
“If we are to regain the trust of those people we lost under New Labour, then we have to be honest about our mistakes. Sometimes in government we forgot the values the NHS was founded on: a universal service, free at the point of use.”
‘The wholesale abandonment of private sector provision could be on the cards under Corbyn’
Corbyn’s NHS values are strongly tied back to the 1945 settlement and the “great socialist” minister Aneurin Bevan. As leader of the opposition, expect a change in the party’s attitudes towards foundation hospitals, the purchaser-provider split and leaving social care budgets unprotected from austerity measures.
“Every day of this Tory government risks the very future of our NHS. An NHS that is being sold off and gradually dismantled. The leech of the private sector has no place in our health system.”
The wholesale abandonment of private sector provision could be on the cards under Corbyn. When asked about how the NHS can be sustainable without private sector involvement, expect calls for further investment and spending that go above and beyond the government’s current plans.
Liz Kendall: The party of reform, and of the NHS
Conference: “We did amazing things for our NHS in government. There are always lessons to be learnt, but we cannot ignore, nor should we forget what we were able to achieve.”
The loudest advocate for Labour’s time in government, it is Liz Kendall who argues “what matters is what works”. As the NHS prepares for winter, Kendall would not shy away from calling for a renewed role for independent treatment centres to help reduce hospital waiting times.
“As prime minister I would fight to give every child the best possible start at life.”
‘Cost effectiveness is a guiding principle of Kendall’s philosophy towards public services’
Liz has made early years investment a top priority for her leadership bid. This is not just about improving people’s life chances, but about reducing the burden on the taxpayer because of social inequalities.
Cost effectiveness is a guiding principle of Kendall’s philosophy towards public services.
“The Tories have no right to claim to be the party of the NHS. But neither do we until we are on the side of reform, change and innovation.”
Learning lessons from David Cameron’s tenure as leader of the opposition, Liz will seek to reposition Labour as the party for reform and the Conservatives as running scared from the difficult decisions.
Labour’s new leader must lead the debate
Whoever emerges triumphant on 12 September has a momentous task of bringing an end to the infighting and returning to the task at hand: opposition.
‘If Labour’s new leader wants to prove they are up to the job they must strike early’
Health will remain a top issue for this Parliament.
If Labour’s new leader wants to prove they are up to the job they must strike early rather than getting buried in endless policy reviews - or delegating health to their shadow spokesperson (as Ed Miliband did for large swathes of his leadership).
- having a forensic eye on where in Richmond House the spending review axe will fall;
- holding Cameron and Hunt to account on their promises to cancer patients; and
- shining a light on the gaps in current plans for a seven day NHS.
Being leader of the opposition is about being a credible alternative to the government of the day. Saturday 12 September will be the new leader’s first chance to prove they can be that alternative.
Ben Nunn is an account director at Incisive Health