Time to ditch the Burnham-era policies, NHS campaigners tell Labour's leadership

NHS campaigners meet John McDonnell and Heidi Alexander today, and hope to put five questions to them.

Sacha Ismail
13 April 2016

Image: John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, on a junior doctors picket line.

Today representatives of a number of NHS campaigns, including Momentum NHS, will meet with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. This is a positive development; we appreciate the opportunity. Here are five issues we hope to raise with John.

1. Will Labour support the NHS Bill?
When the NHS Bill to reverse marketisation and privatisation in the health service returned to Parliament on 11 May, only a tiny number of Labour MPs showed up, with the result that the Tories could talk it out without a real fight. None of the Labour leadership were there, despite the fact that John and Jeremy Corbyn have their names on the Bill. Moreover, there are reports that Labour MPs were whipped to not turn up. Is that right? And if so – why? Shouldn’t Labour be championing this legislation rather than running away from it? What can we do to ensure that happens next time?

2. Why is Labour still talking about avoiding “top down reorganisation”?
“We can’t have another top down reorganisation” functioned for the pre-Corbyn leadership Labour Party as an excuse not to champion serious restoration of the NHS as a public service. And this argument is still being used – it was used in the briefing statement put out to Labour MPs about the NHS Bill, for instance.

It is nonsense. The NHS is constantly being reorganised by and in order to facilitate privatisation – never more than in the last year. It requires a thorough reorganisation to restore it. Contrary to the New Labour spin, this is not an argument heard to any real extent among NHS workers – it is an invention of the pre-Corbyn Labour establishment. And of course many health workers’ organisations have enthusiastically backed the NHS Bill – for instance the Unite health sector national committee, which voted to support it unanimously.

3. Why isn’t Labour talking about privatisation?
It seems that the party’s message on the NHS is being shaped by Heidi Alexander and the other Labour right wingers in the shadow health team. As a result, the message coming out is vintage Burnham, if not to his right. For sure, Labour spokespeople are not talking seriously about the fact that the NHS is being dismantled and privatised, and the need to reverse this process and reinstate the NHS as a comprehensive public service.

Meanwhile, there is a mantra about merging health and social care, but a refusal to say whether this means social care becoming a free public service. If not, that just means extending privatisation in the NHS! Right-wing Labour politicians like Caroline Flint give this policy their own spin – pro-privatisation and pro-NHS charges – and are not being contradicted. To contradict them, of course, requires a clear alternative policy.

4. Will Labour throw itself behind the junior doctors’ strike?
The support the party has given the junior doctors is welcome, but it is very far from “all in”. John has visited junior doctors’ picket lines, which is good, but Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t. In fact on strikes days he seems to disappear. Meanwhile Heidi Alexander tells questioners at her CLP that she won’t be going to the picket lines “because I represent patients too”. In fact that is all the more reason to back the strike – not reinforce the Tory narrative that it’s junior doctors vs patients. The press is full of reports that she has vetoed full-throated support for the strike. The vast majority of members and activists support the doctors but this is not being reflected. It’s time for John and Jeremy to assert their authority and get the whole party mobilised in support.

5. Will Labour Party conference policy on the NHS be respected?
The positions being promoted by Alexander and other health spokespeople are not in line with already existing Labour Party conference policy – passed in 2012 but consistently ignored. It seems very likely that this year’s Labour Party conference will discuss the NHS – and that, if allowed to proceed democratically, it will agree radical policy in line with what we arguing here. Party activists and NHS campaigners should demand a commitment that motions will not be unreasonably disqualified or otherwise manoeuvred out, as they have been in the past, and that what the conference passes will become operative party policy.

Not everyone in the Labour Party is completely in agreement on the NHS, to say the least. In fact the views of the vast majority of members are being side-lined in favour of those of the shadow health team. We need to get started with a serious debate in the party about the policies and campaigning we need to save our health service. At the very least, we want John to help open up that debate.

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