Image: Jon Ashworth, appointed last week as shadow health secretary.
For the first time since June the Labour Party has a full Shadow health team for England. Only Justin Madders MP continued in post throughout the chaotic summer period that included a failed coup and a similarly unsuccessful challenge to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Post-reshuffle, and with Diane Abbott promoted to shadow home secretary, what can we expect from the new health team led by Jonathan Ashworth?
Corbyn's re-election as Labour leader with an increased mandate of almost 62% of those voting, followed an extraordinary window in Labour Party governance. With most of his shadow cabinet resigning en masse, Corbyn was obliged to promote many of his less experienced parliamentary supporters to shadow cabinet roles. The result was both paradoxical and positive - a thinly populated but enthusiastic and very progressive opposition front bench.
The first front bencher to resign in the coup was shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander, who subsequently criticised both Corbyn’s leadership style and also the actions of shadow chancellor John McDonnell.
Alexander’s replacement as shadow health secretary was Corbyn ally Diane Abbott. During the next three months Abbott published a series of speeches, articles and blogs very much more radical and progressive than those of her predecessor, in terms of supporting the NHS workforce and of reinstating a publicly provided, national health service. This culminated in her speech to the Labour Party conference on September 27. Abbott told us that Labour stands with the junior doctors. She said that NHS England’s Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs) “seem like a vehicle to drive through cuts and closures” and that “where they are purely about cuts, Labour will fight them.” She pledged that “under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership the Labour Party will be committed to halting and reversing the tide of privatisation and marketisation of the NHS… Labour in government will repeal the Health and Social Care Act”. And she stated that “The NHS will be returned to a publicly owned, publicly funded, publicly accountable universal service, as outlined in the NHS Reinstatement Bill now being piloted through Parliament by my colleague Margaret Greenwood MP, with the support of the Labour leadership.”
While there was disappointment that neither in Abbott’s speech, nor in the composited motion on the NHS passed by the conference, was there an explicit commitment to fully public provision of the health service, this nonetheless represented great progress for Labour.
Also, on the same day as Abbott’s speech Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) put to the conference a series of policy statements entitled What Labour Stands For, based on Corbyn’s pre-leadership election pledges. These will form the basis of a plan which will be put to Labour’s National Policy Forum as the framework for policy making over the coming months. The statement ‘A secure NHS and social care’ states “We will end health service privatisation and bring services into a secure, publicly-provided NHS. We will integrate the NHS and social care for older and disabled people, funding dignity across the board, and ensure parity for mental health services.”
To what extent this positive progress will be sustained is now however somewhat uncertain. Although Corbyn’s post conference reshuffle retained his supporters in most of the senior shadow cabinet posts, the exception was health, where Jonathan Ashworth MP replaced Diane Abbott. This was apparently the result of a deal whereby in exchange for the health brief, Ashworth's place on the NEC was taken by Corbyn-supporting Kate Osamor. While this is important in bolstering Corbyn’s political influence over the Labour Party, the impact on health policy remains to be seen. To date, Ashworth has not been seen as a Corbyn supporter and his views on health policy are as yet unclear. It can only be hoped that, should his views on health policy differ from those of Corbyn and Abbott, Ashworth will nonetheless continue to work within the framework which they and the NEC have set.