Friday, October 06, 2006


Could NHS prove to be Labour's Achilles Heel?

Michael Portillo, on This Week last night defended Dave's foray into Labour's traditional territory of the NHS on the grounds that if Labour always led on this topic then a frontal charge at their cannons was at least worth the effort. Even a brief examiniation of recent polls, however, reveals that the situation is much more depressing than for the government party. Last May polls showed that:

'Despite massive increases in spending and staff numbers since 1997, the Tories now lead Labour by two points as the party with the best policy on the NHS. That compares with a 14-point Labour lead when Britain went to the polls last year.'

Indeed, the economy was the only major policy sphere at that time to register a Labour lead, and even that a reduced one. More recent polls confirm a trend which could prove fatal to Labour, given that Cameron has apparently chosen the NHS as his main battle-ground. Cameron's bold move is supported by poll evidence and the poor book-keeping which has caused well publicised cuts has exacerbated the situation. The campaign to save Bedford hospital might even produce a repeat in 2009 of the 2001 Wyre Forest upset when Dr Richard Taylor stood for the Commons on saving a local hospital and defeated a Labour junior minister.

Most users of the NHS which I have encountered are sure that it has improved greatly since 1997 but the public image-informed by hostile press coverage- has not reflected this. For instance- a very personal example- in 1992 when I suffered a major turning point in my life- a stroke while jogging- I slept that night in a corridor(no, not the one in the picture); last year when I had a minor operation to remove a cyst, I was in and out within a day and within a month of my GP's referral. Solving this problem for Labour will not be easy as the Guardian comments today.

But the Conservatives' antidote- while apparently popular- is nowhere to be seen; so far they have exploited current popularity and added their own, 'Dave's family' spin. One small ray of hope for the government might be Labour's perennial port in a storm, Oliver Letwin, the Conservative head of policy development. According to the lastSunday Times, he has indicated his party is 'gung ho' on privatising this sacred national monument(specifically, he said that under a Conservative government, there would be 'no limits' to the use of private provision). If Labour can exploit that admission it might have a chance of regaining the initiative on this, it's traditionally strongest issue.

Polly Toynbee also writes in todays Guardian on the public's apparent lack of gratitude for Labours years of investment.

It's certainly a bold move by Cameron to pitch for dominance in such a traditionally Labour area but it may yet work. It's an interesting question of why Labour have, as Polly says "failed to wrap their spending around a bolder narrative of social justice”. While I'd conceed that previous Tory governments have been far too ruthless in trying to weed out waste & bureaucracy and just ended up stripping funds from worthwhile & effective programmes - all that’s happened over the last decade is that Labour have done the opposite. Their worthy progressive zeal has moved beyond the point of addressing real need into meddling and thinking there’s a government programme to address every problem. Surely if the massive investment Labour has made in the public sphere had anything like the impact it should have done given the cost then it wouldn’t need a pro-active and conscious effort to convince people of it?

I have progressive friends who are steadily coming to the conclusion that ‘something’s wrong’ or that we have a real ‘value for money issue’ here. They’re not quite ready to sign-up to the Cameron fan club yet (and may never be) but this consensus on the limits to the efficacy of public spending spans left & right and so Cameron may be onto something here.
What Labour are doing this year in the NHS may well be one-off. Instead of the usual rigmaroll whereby competent organisations bail out incompetent organisations the Government are saying defecits have to be addressed properly. Once that shakes out, and the PCT reconfigurations are sorted, they are hoping to be in a position to .... semi-privatise the NHS with 'choice', 'choose and book' Foundation Trusts and an internal market which will be ripe for the Tories to hand over lock, stock and barrel to Bupa.
I think the NHS may be the UK's Achilles heel and not just Labour's. The cost of healthcare, as the population ages and newer (often expensive) drugs and treatments become available, will never stop rising. Today another new cancer drug has stirred up a 'can the NHS afford it' debate. I can't blame patients or their relatives for mounting campaigns to have such treatments made available and the press will be ready to leap onto the bandwagon.

It makes me very gloomy but, given our collective desire apparently to pay not a penny piece more in tax, I wonder for how much longer a free to all for everything service can survive.

The problem for Labour would soon become the problem for the Tories were they to win. They are playing for high stakes on this issue ...
Great blog and when I was at university I read Politics UK and I loved it. It really got me to grips with British politics. As for the blog, I have to say whatever Labour does to the NHS it has already proved over the last fifty years to be one of the best things Labour has ever done. Cheap healthcare that helps the very poorest in society. So the NHS is Labour's strong point.
Surely the public will remember the patients' passports proposal? If not, Labour is sure to remind them. I would be surprised if the electorate deemed Cameron's "N-H-S" statement to be sincere.

To Hughes - America pays far more for health provision (something like double, re GDP?), a situation which Americans apparently find sustainable.

Apologies, if anyone's bothered, for the lack of blog action - I can't seem to get on it in Oxford.
SPL is quite right that (wealthy) Americans pay far more for their healthcare than we do in the UK. But they do it mainly through insurance companies. Middle income earners seem, curiously, much happier to buy insurance than to pay tax. The (mistaken) perception is that they're buying something for themselves rather than to help others through risk aggregation.

I blame Margaret Thatcher and the Daily Mail for promoting such daft feelings in the UK. Mind you I blame them for most things that I don't approve of ...
I believe the point you are trying to make is that people love FREEDOM, and don't like being robbed by the government for such a poor service as the NHS. I would rather pay double to an insurance company than put up with the filth and squalor in most UK hospitals.
Maybe if we paid double to the NHS we wouldn't have to "put up with the filth and squalor of most UK hospitals." Having spent many years in countries without 'free' healthcare, I would definitely rather have the NHS than be without it.
I bet you were one of he people who said the same thing before we spend about double and it is still crap. Quite obvious, the system just doesn't work, and no amount of sentimental cobblers about the 1950's, or wishful thinking will disguise the fact.

I live in a country where we have no Soviet style system. I have to have an operation in two weeks, and I have delayed plans top come back to the UK, so that I can have it here rather than the NHS. Truth be told I would rather take a chance with nature than risk the NHS. Cameron may be an idiot, but he is right in one way. Britain deserves better than this hopeless system. It won't matter how you vote, both parties will phase it out over time. I just wish it could be a more instant solution. But then a lack of speed will be one of the defining characteristics of the NHS, even in its abolition it seems.
The system doesn't work? Is that a fact? I wonder what the thousands who now survive cancer treatment and who wouldn't have before 1997 would say to that (see report last week) or the millions who have operations every year. No, the system does work but could still be made to work better.
Yeh I don't ever seem to meet any of these thousands of alleged patients. New Labour wouldn't lie would it(?). What I did regularly used to meet however were people who lived on disability benefit. In the 1980's they were unemployed, but now our Prime Minister tells us that we have virtually defeated unemployment. Beginning to spot a trend here? You see there are lies, damn lies and (New Labour) statistics. I struggle to spot the difference.

The NHS is crap and no amount of fake stats will hide the fact.
Well you wouldn't meet any if you don't live in this country!!! I have been speaking to someone less than 1 hour ago who has just had exemplory service from the NHS. The NHS is not crap, it is a life saving institution for millions of people who would otherwise have no health cover.
And speaking of unemployment, well the Tory party knows all about that.
Yeah the point being that today there are more people unemployed in the UK than there were at any point in the 80's...we just reclassify them as "disabled". A remarkable medical phenonmenon, considering there are three times as many disabled as 15 years ago. Or is someone in Government taking the piss?

As for the NHS saving lives...tell that to the thousands of people who get MRSA every year in the filthy hospitals. Most people see it for waste of space it is.
MRSA - a drug resistant bacterial infection first noticed after cleaning services were privatised by the Tory government.
Not sure 'thousands' get MRSA Michael; INS stats say it was 1.6 thousand for the year 2004 and in no year from 1993 onwards was the figure in any sense 'thousands'.
Dreadnought said "MRSA - a drug resistant bacterial infection first noticed after cleaning services were privatised by the Tory Government". In the real world, MRSA was in fact first discovered in UK in...1961. So unless you are blaming the Tory Government of Harold MacMillan, it is hard to see the logic in that statement.

We could have a long debate about where 1600 deaths is "thousands". Note that I did not say DEATHS, I mentioned people who get the infection, which is obviously thousands. And I doubt in any case most of the MRSA deaths are honestly reported on death certificates by a medical establishment that has an interest in covering their collective backs. I suspect there are probably tens of thousands of deaths from this disease that are not reported. Shame on them all.
Not drug resistant MRSA.
I don't want to kick a guy when he is down but...MRSA stands for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. This is an evolved form of the Staphylococcus aureus. It defining characteristic is that it is resistant to all pencillins. The former was discovered in 1961 - before I think so called "privatisation" could be blamed.

To summarise - all MRSA is drug resistant. The very name MRSA tells us this!
MRSA is not resistant to all antibiotics and is a generic term to describe those examples of the Staphylococcus Aureus organism that are resistant to commonly used antibiotics. These strains emerged from hospitals due to the overuse of antibiotics and the relaxation of both hygiene and asepsis discipline. What are you talking about 1961 for? The date of its discovery is irrelevant. It probably evolved resistance years before then but it became prevalent in hospitals the early 1990s after years of budget cuts and privatisation. Knockout!
You have a preconcieved notion of the reasons for events and have dreamt a version of history to suit it. If you honestly believe hospitals are more dirty today than they were in the 1950's, then you need to wake up. The date of 1961 is significant because you claimed(falsely) that MRSA was "first noticed after cleaning services were privatised by the Tories". I suspect the time delay has something to do with the natural evolution of the strain.

Just face it, the NHS is the deadest of dead horses, and we should stop flogging it. Destined for history's rubbish bin.
No, the NHS is a much loved institution, delivery exceptional services, and has a great future, even apparently under a Tory government.
"much loved". But nostalgia doesn't keep people alive and the NHS is the "living" proof of that.
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