‘Labour can restore our NHS to glory – by reinstating it as a fully public service’

Cat Hobbs
© Marbury/Shutterstock.com

The NHS is the best thing this country has ever invented. Right now, Labour has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be the party that not only created it but restored it to glory after Tory neglect.

In 2014, the NHS was the most efficient healthcare system in the world. But after a decade of this government’s cuts and privatisation (and the worst pandemic in living memory), it’s on its knees.

Labour can give the British people the NHS that Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan created back in 1948, ready for the 21st century, rebuilt after all the suffering, clapping and unprecedented corruption. It can promise to take back our NHS as the service it was intended to be – there when you need it, working for patients not profit – instead of drifting towards American-style privatisation. That’s a straightforward story that will resonate with people.

Labour must reverse past moves towards privatisation

Wes Streeting’s speech at conference hinted at this level of ambition with its call to “rescue, rebuild and renew the health service today”, saying “there is nothing wrong with the NHS that can’t be cured by what’s right with the NHS” and talking about the Dickensian situation in dentistry – reminding people that this government is taking us backwards. And Rachel Reeves has committed to challenging the government’s corrupt crony contracts.

Labour’s National Policy Forum has rightly rejected a two-tier system and says the NHS must be so good people don’t have to go private. It says “the NHS is not for sale” under Labour.

But this statement isn’t meaningful or compelling unless Labour recognises and reverses the variety of ways that the current government (and previous ones) have indeed put the NHS up for sale. These include the internal market which costs around £4.5bn a year and PFI contracts that put a debt burden on NHS trusts of up to 13% of their income.

They include the 2012 legislation that opened up NHS contracts to the external market and removed the Secretary of State’s duty to provide care, leading to rationing of NHS services. And the 2022 Health and Care Act which carved up our NHS into chunks, introducing an even greater role for the private sector with ‘provider collaboratives’.

Along with, of course, the huge contracts given to profit-making companies throughout the pandemic, including private hospital contracts that failed to dent the waiting list and billions spent on privatised Test and Trace. The British public didn’t vote for any of this.

Ending cuts and privatisation is compatible with Labour’s health priorities

Privatisation actually kills. An Oxford University study links the increase in outsourcing since the Lansley 2012 legislation with 557 unnecessary deaths. The US spends double what we do on its privatised healthcare system, yet the mortality rate is higher.

The government is also using cuts to promote the role of the private sector in healthcare. The number of beds in NHS hospitals has halved in the past 30 years. Staff are on strike after years of real-terms pay cuts.

Starving the NHS of funds pushes people to go private. If they can afford to dig into hard-earned savings for a much-needed operation, they do. If not, they wait, suffer and sometimes die while waiting.

Streeting’s speech offered £1.1bn to help beat the backlog. But that’s a drop in the ocean. The UK needs to invest at the levels of other European countries. As the Health Foundation has shown, France spends the equivalent of £40bn a year more than the UK, Germany an extra £73bn annually. 

It’s misleading to suggest that this country is ‘pouring money in’ while ignoring both the huge funding gap and the ways in which privatisation wastes the existing budget. Labour must tell the truth about this and hold the government to account.

Ending cuts and privatisation is compatible with the other points that Labour wants to make about healthcare, which are really truisms. Prevention is better than cure. Technology keeps evolving. We have an ageing population. Yes, of course. 

Funding the NHS properly and reinstating it as a fully public service will lay the groundwork for dealing with these issues constructively. AI and data that benefits patients, quicker computers for GPs, staff to deliver long-term prevention policies and social care that works for patients not private equity.

We are urging Labour to reinstate the NHS as a fully public service

Ed Dorrell wrote for LabourList last week that everybody knows that the NHS is in desperate need of investment, which reinforces this point. But he also says people don’t believe the NHS can improve and that everyone has a personal horror story. This doesn’t feel constructive. Many people like to moan, in general and about public services. So what? Labour can prove the naysayers wrong by increasing public satisfaction with the NHS, as it has done in the past. 

Labour says NHS reform is inevitable – so that reform should end the privatisation that was never part of the founding vision, building on the legislation drafted by Professor Allyson Pollock.

Polling repeatedly shows that four out of five voters want our NHS in public ownership. Most people understand that privatisation distorts incentives, leading to unnecessary interventions, cherry-picking and waste, with the NHS picking up the pieces.

Only the NHS trains doctors and nurses. Only the NHS provides accident and emergency services. Only the NHS deals with all cases, however complex. Only the NHS can get us out of this mess.

That’s why We Own It stood outside Labour Party conference calling on Keir Starmer to reinstate the NHS as a fully public service. That’s why more than 10,000 of our supporters wrote directly to Starmer and Streeting, and we will continue to make this demand until and beyond the election.

Our grandchildren need us to take back the NHS, this country’s proudest achievement. Labour must not miss the opportunity.

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