‘Labour must unite us around the NHS, not start fights and culture wars’

Cat Hobbs
Wes Streeting, centre, with Labour leader Keir Starmer, right.

Under the Conservatives, our NHS has gone from being world-leading to on its knees. In 2014, a Commonwealth Fund study ranked the NHS as the best healthcare system in the world and the second cheapest of those analysed. Today, 250 patients are dying every week because of long waits in A&E. Doctors are leaving the country in droves. Hospitals are literally crumbling.

Wes Streeting could be telling a straightforward, easy-to-understand story. Labour created the NHS, the Tories have trashed it. People are dying as a result. Labour will take back control of our NHS, fund it properly and stop wasteful privatisation.

The Labour Party could be the hero, rescuing the health service it created from wasteful crony contracts and criminal neglect. All of us would love to live in a country where we don’t have to worry about our loved ones needing an ambulance or an operation.

Instead, Streeting seems to be trying to rustle up working class resentment against middle class NHS campaigners, stoking the divisive, destructive culture wars that so much of the media revels in. This might grab headlines in the short term, but in the long term, this kind of rhetoric creates no political space for Labour. Why not rise above the mean-spirited debates and do grown-up politics, bringing people together in a coalition to achieve results? 77% of Conservative voters want a fully publicly-owned NHS.

Labour must be honest about the real solutions to the NHS crisis

The NHS is the ultimate patriotic achievement, and truly fixing it could earn Labour a second and third term in government. To do this, Labour needs to be honest about the roots and scale of the problem and the actual solutions. Streeting wants to use private sector capacity to tackle waiting lists – but what exactly does this mean?

If he means staff, as former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said, “independent hospitals fish from the same pool of doctors for their workforce”. The public has spent £8.75bn training the 17,500 medical consultants who now deliver care in the private sector. Outsourcing operations also makes it harder for the NHS to train new doctors. Doctors and nurses should be encouraged to stay in the NHS with decent pay and conditions, not incentivised to go private.

If Streeting means beds, Monday night’s Panorama highlighted the risks of relying on private hospitals for capacity when those same hospitals do not have intensive care units or proper overnight cover. Complications can lead to unnecessary deaths. Private hospitals send back 550 patients to the NHS every month, “A&E dumping” them while they profit from the easy cases. As Shaun Lintern, Sunday Times health editor has highlighted, there have also been hundreds of unnecessary surgeries in the private sector, a trend that is well established in the US.

Pouring money into the private sector is not the answer

Only the NHS takes care of patients at A&E, trains our doctors and nurses and looks after all patients instead of cherry-picking to maximise profits. Now, as in 2005-6 when Tony Blair’s independent sector treatment centres were assessed by the health committee, investing directly in our NHS remains the best way to provide value for money.

That’s why Streeting should promise to invest every available penny back into our NHS to build it up for the future. Invest in staff so that people want to work for the NHS. Invest in beds (numbers have more than halved in the last 30 years) so that we’re not languishing at the bottom of international league tables.

Streeting has promised £1.1bn of investment – he must know this is a drop in the ocean compared to the £40bn a year we need to match equivalent European countries. Blair thought seriously about how to match spending in comparable countries – why can’t Streeting do the same? Germany spends £73bn more a year than we do. A healthy population would boost the economy and tax revenue.

Of course, Streeting is right that we mustn’t have a two-tier system, the NHS should be so good people don’t have to go private, everyone should have timely access to care without worrying about the bill. But pouring money into the private sector is not going to achieve these goals. In fact, Streeting should recognise privatisation as the “leaky bucket” that desperately needs reform.

Streeting must not bash campaigners and healthcare staff

Our NHS has been privatised in many different ways. The internal market wastes at least £4.5bn a year, while private finance initiative contracts drain away up to 13% of NHS trust budgets. Outsourcing by NHS trusts has led to 557 excess deaths since the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. There is also outsourcing by NHS England, for example the failed test and trace contract.

Labour has already committed to the “biggest wave of insourcing for a generation”. This should also apply to the NHS. Evidence supports this, with recent Oxford University analysis linking outsourcing with poorer quality care for patients.

Wes Streeting – doctors and nurses are your allies. NHS campaigning groups are your allies. More importantly, so are all the patients and worried families across the UK who read the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. Don’t mislead them.

Tell the public that the private sector can’t fix this, it doesn’t even have A&Es. The only way to stop 250 deaths a week is to fund the NHS properly and stop leaking out money in private profits. Bring the country together, give us a vision to vote for, take pride in our NHS. There are more votes to be won in actually fixing the NHS than in bashing different segments of the population who desperately want to be on your side.

If you have anything to share that we should be looking into or publishing about this or any other topic involving Labour, on record or strictly anonymously, contact us at [email protected]

Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for a briefing everything Labour, every weekday morning. 

If you can help sustain our work too through a monthly donation, become one of our supporters here.

And if you or your organisation might be interested in partnering with us on sponsored events or content, email [email protected].

More from LabourList


We provide our content free, but providing daily Labour news, comment and analysis costs money. Small monthly donations from readers like you keep us going. To those already donating: thank you.

If you can afford it, can you join our supporters giving £10 a month?

And if you’re not already reading the best daily round-up of Labour news, analysis and comment…