Philip Hunt On the Labour conference health lobby

Published: 07/10/2004, Volume II4, No. 5926 Page 21

As the NHS gears up for another tough period, we politicians have been enjoying ourselves at the seaside. The smell of sea, chips and political debate is a heady mixture.

I went to my first Labour Party conference in Blackpool in 1969 and have been going ever since.How they have changed! No more the heated and often destructive ideological battles of the 1970s and 1980s. Now they are more like political rallies - but no less riveting for that.

And if the great policy debates no longer take place in plenary sessions, they are more than made up for by hundreds of fringe meetings. Alastair Darling on transport, Lord Falconer on constitutional reform and Tessa Jowell on young people in sport were some of the highlights. These events start in the early morning, resume at lunchtime and go on well into the evening.

One of the most popular was a 10pm session by Billy Bragg on, of all subjects, House of Lords reform. It was standing room only for the singer and activist who rewarded us with some songs and passionate debate.

What is remarkable is how strong the health lobby is.When I first went to party conference, the British Medical Association and Royal College of Nursing were the sole representatives.Now health is probably the biggest and most important lobby. The creation of the Health Hotel has been a brilliant idea. Instead of competing for speakers and delegates, nearly 30 organisations combined forces, took over a whole hotel for a week and put on a remarkable show.

Some 25 sessions took place, with strong ministerial representation.

Health secretary John Reid spoke at no fewer than 10 events.

There were some excellent events. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence meeting on implementation of its guidance was one. So, too, the Unison/NHS Confederation on bureaucratbashing. The number of sessions on public health was significant.

As capacity and waiting gets sorted, the emphasis is shifting to improving the nation's health.

What impact does it all have? The imminent public health white paper is eagerly awaited. It comes amidst encouraging signs that the government is getting serious on food labelling and salt in food.

But this is going to be a tough fight. And it cannot simply be left to the government. The organisations that come together in the Health Hotel could form a very powerful alliance to promote public health issues and take the fight to the many vested interests.

More generally, the strong representation of health organisations at the party conferences re-enforces the importance of health and the NHS to politicians.We are in the middle of the biggest expansion in the history of the NHS.When the current spending round for health ends in 2008, it will be vital to maintain strong investment.With the whole health community pulling together, a really powerful case can be made.

Whether it is Blackpool, Brighton or Bournemouth, long may health play a key part in the debates of the political parties.

Lord Hunt is chair of the National Patient Safety Agency and a former junior health minister.