Hugh Caffrey, Keep Our NHS Public
Activists campaigning for an end to cuts and privatisation in the National Health Service were left extremely angry, and many perplexed, after Labour failed to support the second reading of the NHS Bill – a private members’ bill – in parliament on 11 March.
The bill aims to reverse all the pro-market measures introduced by successive Tory and New Labour governments, exemplified by the odious Con-Dem Health and Social Care Act but also including policies such as the Labour-driven Private Finance Initiative which is now forcing many NHS Trusts towards bankruptcy.
The bill was co-authored by NHS analysts such as Allyson Pollock, and introduced to parliament last year by the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas with apparently cross-party support from the SNP and Labour.
Campaigners who organised a national day of action on 11 March to publicise the bill, and contacted their MPs urging them to be present and vote for it, were angered when only 34 MPs turned up for the reading of it. Though the bill will now return to the parliamentary agenda in April, it is unlikely to be discussed.
Many constituents who asked Labour MPs to vote for the bill, received back a very similar response, which offered excuses for why they wouldn’t be voting. The reason the responses were so similar is that a template letter had been circulated around Labour MPs. Apparently, the template originated from someone in the office of the anti-austerity shadow chancellor John McDonnell!
After offering the MP’s excuses for not attending parliament during the vote, the letter continued by saying that the bill is unlikely to become law, and that although Labour supports its ‘principles’, it is actually fundamentally opposed to it:
“However there are concerns that some of the other parts of this bill would require another wholesale reorganisation of the health service. The recent top-down reorganisation of the NHS, brought about by the Coalition’s Health and Social Care Act 2012, threw the system into turmoil, cost over £3bn and eroded staff morale.
“So whilst I support the broad objectives which lie behind this bill, I am concerned about the scale of structural change and costs associated with any further major reorganisation of the NHS. If the bill were to proceed, Labour would seek to amend it so that it avoids the problems of a further reorganisation but implements the key principles of the bill.”
For Labour to equate reversing the attacks on the NHS with the Con-Dems’ chaotic smash-and-grab raid on the NHS is disgraceful as well as inaccurate. And the often-cited excuse by MPs that “staff and the public don’t want another top-down reorganisation” is patent nonsense when the opinion polls, every campaign, and every trade union in/around the NHS, all confirm that the only reorganisation of the NHS that people actually want to see is its return to complete public ownership and control, and all the market-associated spivs and junketeers thrown overboard.
The letter makes clear that Labour’s position remains as it was 12 months ago under Ed Miliband, opposed to some aspects of what the Tories have done but not at all supportive of reversing all pro-market changes to the NHS.
No doubt Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell want to see the attacks on the NHS fully reversed; John McDonnell tweeted on the 11th that he supports the bill. Equally doubtless is that Blairites like shadow health spokesperson Heidi Alexander and her predecessor Andy Burnham are opposed to this.
But if Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell cannot confront the Blairites even over the future of the best-loved public service in Britain, when legislation is in front of parliament, campaigners are mobilising, public support for public ownership is sky-high and junior doctors are on strike, then what will they confront them on?
Increasingly, if they don’t change course, NHS campaigners and trade unionists will draw the same conclusion that they had done under previous Labour leaderships – that no hope can be entertained of Labour riding to the rescue, and the only way to save our NHS will be through building a political alternative, along with more mass struggles, like the tremendous recent demonstration in Huddersfield and the junior doctors’ strikes.