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Labour made the NHS both scary and boring

You can't defeat the politics of fear, with more fear.

After the defeat, the deluge of the pre-prepared narrative.  

Labour lost the 2015 General Election because it was “too left”, we are told. Middle England saw “Red Ed”, and “roared” back.

Voters may have told pollsters that the NHS was their number one issue – but, the narrative goes, voters lied. Labour unwisely retreated into its 'comfort zone', but it turned it was “the economy, stupid” that decided the election, as ever.

Well, perhaps.

Certainly about 3% of voters did lie to pollsters – or themselves – in terms of their voting intentions.

But perhaps voters had a look on what was on offer from Labour and just didn’t feel convinced. Perhaps they found parties with the courage of their convictions more authentic, more appealing, than parties facing at least 3 different ways, trying to be all things to all men. That approach isn’t working out so well for the Lib Dems now, is it? 

As Nye Bevan, architect of the NHS once said, “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down.”

The media has also been blamed for Labour’s defeat, and certainly bear some culpability, as our sister site OurKingdom has been relentlessly exposing. But perhaps journalists also looked at Labour’s manifesto and pledges and struggled to find any interesting or intelligible narrative in it. “Ending a century of centralism”? Not really “hold the front page” stuff…

Yes, Labour told us – endlessly – that the NHS was “condition critical”. Leaflets flooded through letterboxes, warning us in ever more apocalyptic tones that there were 100 hours to save it… 72… 48… 24…

But you can’t defeat the politics of fear with more fear. You need a politics of hope, and of courage. You need a clear and coherent message about what YOU would do differently.

And this is what we didn’t get from Labour. 

Instead, Labour sent its candidates naked into the hustings halls.

They could tell us there was a crisis in our hospitals, with patients waiting too long to be seen by doctors and given a bed if they needed it.

But they couldn’t promise to halt the loss of hospital beds (halved in the last 30 years) and the further closures to come. Instead they nodded along with Tories and Lib Dems promising us ‘care in the community’ and ‘self-care’.

They could tell voters they opposed NHS privatisation.

But they couldn’t pledge to reverse it, because their leadership refused to sign up to the only convincing plans to get rid of the market, the cross-party NHS Bill. Instead Labour offered to cap private providers profits - a policy ridden with so many loopholes it barely featured in Labour’s publicity.

They could tell us they’d repeal Cameron’s Health & Social Care Act, which reorganised the NHS as little more than a massive bureaucracy allowing private health firms to select and compete for the bits they could run for profit, leaving the rest underfunded.

But they also promised us they wouldn’t impose ‘another reorganisation’, meaning most commentators thought their policy was incoherent.

They could tell us that the only way to fix the NHS was by fixing social care as well.

But they couldn’t say how they would fix social care – because ridding social care of means-testing and low, privatised standards would cost far more money than they were prepared to commit. Instead they promised us that merging these two systems would free up huge sums – something few experts believed – and that we could talk about the rest of the funding gap, er, after the election.

They could tell us that prevention was more important than cure, and that people’s health was suffering as a result of cruel Tory cuts.

But, with the exception of the bedroom tax, they couldn’t pledge to reverse any of these cuts, because Ed Balls had committed them to continued austerity. Instead they promised to be “tougher than the Tories” on benefits.

On every issue, Labour tied themselves in knots, failing to highlight the problems properly for fear of being asked “well, what would you do about it?”

Instead, all they offered us were vague apocalyptic warnings, and the odd tombstone.

The real lesson of the election is that if you’re going to raise people’s fears, you have to offer more hope - better solutions – than merely dull managerialist platitudes about efficiency and integration that sound little different from Tories or Lib Dems.

But Labour’s refusal to find the courage to stand up to the private health and insurance lobby and thus save billions by properly undoing the hugely expensive market mess, or (of course) to find the courage to countenance tax rises, has left them in this rather bathetic position.

In fact from the moment the Lansley white paper landed shortly after the last election, Labour have dismally failed to explain just why the Tory/Lib Dem health ‘reforms’ were so damaging. They’ve failed to explain properly how privatisation is happening under the NHS logo even without a ‘tell-Sid’ style sell –off. They've failed to clearly explain that privatisation is not the solution to a cash shortage, but part of the reason for it. They’ve failed because to explain all this properly would have required more honesty about their own role in paving the way under the Blair/Brown government – and more courage to really change direction - than they were willing to show.

And now they’ve lost. Because voters didn’t care enough about the NHS? Or because Labour took their strongest suit, and made it boring, uninspiring, and unconvincing?

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About the author

Caroline Molloy is Editor of OurNHS and a freelance writer. In 2011/12 she was part of a successful campaign which reversed one of the largest planned NHS privatisations in the country, involving 9 Gloucestershire hospitals. Since then she has been campaigning alongside local and national groups to defend the NHS. 


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