Let Labour Face The Future

For an established political party, every defeat is painful. But some defeats hurt more than others: surprise losses are the worst. Labour expected defeat in 2010, but the idea that it wouldn’t at least improve its position in 2015 seemed all but impossible. And yet within hours of the close of polls in May, commentators (even so called ‘left wing’ ones) were rushing to write off the party’s chances in 2020.

Labour’s prospects do look bleak. The obliteration of the party in Scotland; Conservative plans to gerrymander by cutting the number of MPs to 600 (a number which happens to return the greatest proportion of Tory MPs); and now the financial devastation of the party threatened by the Trade Union Bill means only a groundswell in energy and support can get the party over the line at the next election.

But a more nuanced view of the party’s position is needed. In England it made a decent series of gains in marginal constituencies: were it not for losses in Scotland, Labour would have made a net gain of around 15 seats. The left is more united: Liberal Democrats are no longer in a position to divide the left in the costly way they have done for the past 30 years, whilst any seats lost to the SNP still have MPs that will support a Labour government and oppose a Conservative one. Moreover, it must be remembered that, for all the hype, the best the Conservatives have been able to manage is a majority thinner and weaker than that of the Major government of the 1990s.

As soon as the leadership election was called, three schools of thought emerged in the Labour Party about the best direction to take.

The first is that Miliband frightened off voters by moving the party to more traditionally left-wing positions. The key to electoral success is to make the party ‘credible’ with voters, mirroring Labour’s evolution in the 1990s. The theory is that by committing to iron discipline on spending and fiscal policy and prioritising the interests of business and the middle classes, Labour can convince voters that it is mature enough to govern once more. These ideas are espoused most vocally by leadership candidate Liz Kendall (presently trailing very badly in the race) but carry a lot of influence, particularly amongst older Labour MPs.

The second is that Miliband hit on broadly the right ideas: his moderate brand of social democracy balances the interests of different sections of society. And it’s true, the policy platform Labour fought on in May was a very strong one that was very popular. Proponents of this argument say that the perceived weakness of Miliband as a person coupled with the unchallenged ‘Labour overspending ruined the economy line’ put voters off an otherwise sound offer. This is the majority view within the party, one Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are broadly aligned with.

The third school at first looked very marginalised, and appeared to have no advocate within the race until Corbyn scraped together enough nominations from MPs to enter. That is that Labour’s offer was too uninspiring and offered little help to the young, the poor and the disaffected. An offer that promised more austerity, tweaks to the market and only gestures at ending inequality. Labour recognised the anger and pain that much of the country is feeling, but chose to position itself within the Establishment. Thus angry people went in their droves over to the SNP, to UKIP or, in most cases, didn’t bother to vote at all.

When Corbyn entered, everybody assumed that he would represent the fringe. Like other hard left candidates before him, he’d make a bit of noise and provide an outlet for angry members. If he was lucky, he’d win a little over 10% of the vote before falling back into obscurity.

Now Corbyn has a decent chance of winning.

It’s true that Labour’s centre of gravity has shifted since 2010. There has been a huge influx of new people at every level, from MPs to humble members, who have high hopes for the progress a Labour government could bring. The domination of the the party by Blairites and Brownites has ended, with both factions reduced to a rump of right-wingers and technocrats whose relevance diminishes by the day. True, some of the new blood of the party lies on its right, such as Chuka Umunna or Wes Streeting, but they are more ideologically flexible than true Blairites.

But in fact, thinking in terms of different wings and factions will only get us so far because these aren’t so important in this vote. This election is about hope.

Burnham entered the election as the heir apparent, poised to win on enthusiastic support from the grassroots, impressed with his performance as Shadow Health Secretary, and MPs, confident in him as an electoral asset. However he made the tactical error of responding to attacks on him as the ‘trade union’, ‘left’ or ‘continuity Miliband’ candidate by abruptly distancing himself from those labels. He joined bandwagons attacking the previous leader as ‘anti business’, he declared his support for the benefits cap and further spending cuts. By doing so he disappointed so many within and outside the party who want Labour to stand for meaningful change. By doing so he turned into a ‘vanilla’ candidate. By doing so he created the space for Corbyn.

The reason that Kendall’s campaign has collapsed is that she can offer activists and MPs nothing more to hope for than going into the next election fighting for a continuation of the Conservatives’ agenda. Even if that resonates with voters (it won’t- the Conservatives are more convincing conservatives than Labour and always will be) then what will the prize? Nothing will really change, just the seating arrangement in the House of Commons.

The thinking of many Labour members is that we lost two elections when we weren’t really fighting for what we believed in, so what would be the point of a third? Labour is running out of time: this time it lost Scotland, next time its heartlands in Wales and the north of England could fall if it doesn’t resolve what is becoming an existential crisis.

Jeremy Corbyn is an electoral risk. He is more left wing than I am on many issues, such as defence- and I know I hardly represent the moderate, cautious centreground! Political orthodoxy screams at us that Thatcherism can win votes but socialism does not. That’s why some voices in Labour argue that it would be immature, even cowardly, to elect a ‘right-on’ leader who may not impress voters. The tiresome expression is that we must avoid our ‘comfort zone’

I agree. But it’s Labour politicians who must vacate their comfort zone. They must be prepared to stand up and fight for principles and change that the people can believe in. Labour can commit itself to perpetual decline as a softer alternative to the Conservatives, or it can re-engage with its historical mission to stand up for the working people of Britain. That course is a gamble but Labour should try it before people stop listening altogether.

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Who will save the NHS?

Next year, the National Health Service is projected to spend £2 billion more than it has. After inflation, “efficiency savings” and transfers are accounted for, the NHS budget has been static for five years. In that time, demand for its services has grown to a surprising extent, unfortunately at the same time the Health and Social Care Act fragmented and commericialised it, draining more of its scarce resources at the same time. So, with the same resources at its disposal, the NHS has to:

  • Provide healthcare for 2.5 million more people, mainly children and pensioners (who account for the majority of GP and A&E (ER) visits
  • Meet PFI repayments that have risen by over £1 billion per year
  • Meet the costs of a £1.4 billion shake up
  • Treat growing numbers of diabetics (who account for 10% of the NHS budget)
  • Contribute more to spending on social care

Is it any wonder that the NHS is under visible strain? Whilst the Government boasts that it has ‘protected’ the NHS budget by protecting it from actual cuts, it has neglected to provide for a large expansion of the population and long-running demographic trends that demand an expansion of the service. The Coalition might point out that, despite this, patients are still being treated, surgeries still being performed… In short, the NHS is still functioning, and is more efficient to boot. But that overlooks the very real decline in the quality of healthcare it offers. It is now harder than ever to secure non-emergency medical treatment; waiting lists for surgery have once more become an issue; and there is a growing sense that care is being ‘rationed’.

Privately, politicians are beginning to acknowledge that the present situation is unsustainable. Not only is the NHS is now faced with the prospect of running out of money at the end of the financial year, but that £2 billion shortfall is projected to grow to as much as £30 billion by 2020. That figure may be slightly alarmist, but the shortfall will be at least half of that. There is a consensus that “something must be done” but nobody is prepared to discuss the grim implications in an election year.

https://thepoliticalidealist.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/9e975-nhs.jpg

Image source: scirocco2morocco.blogspot.co.uk

Actually, that’s not quite right. Andy Burnham privately floated the ideas of increases in National Insurance (NI) and later Inheritance Tax to bolster the NHS, but on both occasions was hastily slapped down by the Shadow Chancellor, who categorically ruled out both measures, for fear of being painted as a ‘tax and spend’ party. No, Labour’s official position is that the NHS deficit can be met by savings from the integration of social care services into the NHS. Tellingly, this was announced last week by junior Labour spokesperson Liz Kendall, and not Mr Burnham.

Possibly because the policy is nonsensical.

Supposing that administrative savings could be made, it’s doubtful that they would plug the deficit. The most optimistic estimate of savings is £8 billion a year- some 40% of the social care budget! It’s unlikely that administration consumes nearly half of social care spending, to say the least. It follows that all Labour would achieve is the postponement of the funding crisis by one or two years. Administrative savings cannot pay for the new hospitals, the thousands of extra hospital beds, the new doctors and nurses and the millions of extra prescriptions that Britain needs.

If Labour lacks answers, the Conservatives do not. They are pondering whether to adopt the NI-rise policy so foolishly discarded by Labour, or to accept the proposals made by Reform, the right-wing think tank. It seems Reform’s preferred method of sustaining Britain’s universal health service is not to sustain it. They propose a £120 per-year NHS ‘membership fee’, charges for overnight hospital visits and the means testing of continuing care. This is supplemented by ominous rumours of the next Conservative government imposing a £10 ‘administration fee’ for GP visits or charging patients for ‘self-inflicted’ health issues. These measures would certainly prevent the system becoming bankrupt, but it would be the end of the NHS as a ‘free’, collective public service.

The NHS will be on a sustainable footing- that is, will have the expanded resources it needs- within the next few years. The only question is if that will be achieved through higher public spending or the imposition of fees. Regardless of the calculations made by the evangelical Tory right, the public will not tolerate the latter. (Ultimately, I trust Labour to keep the service intact, even if it is currently in denial about what that will entail.) The extra NHS funding will come from higher taxation, which parties are choosing to reject, or even deeper spending cuts made elsewhere. But with the next Government inheriting a budget deficit of £70 billion and the Department for Work and Pensions, local authorities, schools and the student finance system all straining just to meet their legal obligations on the lowest possible budget, I can’t see any spare money lying around.

Burnham: Pause NHS Privatisation

NHS privatisation is being forced through at pace and scale. Commissioners have been ordered to put all services out to the market. NHS spending on private and other providers has gone through the £10 billion barrier for the first time. When did the British public ever give their consent for this?

 

It is indefensible for the character of the country’s most valued institution to be changed in this way without the public being given a say.

Shadow Secretary of State for Health, Andy Burnham MP

Andy Burnham has written to the Chief Executive of NHS England to ask him to postpone all outsourcing deals until after the next General Election. He has made the request, which will not be agreed to, on the grounds that it would be undemocratic to proceed with such a radical change to a public service without implicit public endorsement. Burnham will be accused of gimmickry: don’t all governments accelerate the introduction of their policies before an election so as to render them irreversible if they lose? However, the Labour spokesman on Health is correct to say the Coalition lacks a mandate for the Health and Social Care (i.e. NHS privatisation) Act. The manifesto of the dominant Coalition partner guaranteed that no such Act would be approved. Politicians are often prone to neglecting their election commitments.

So what would a Labour government actually do for the NHS?

Despite agreeing with Burnham that the composition and purpose of the NHS should not be further distorted until/unless there is a popular mandate for the policy, I see no prospect of his request being heeded, which is a shame. There is also the risk that, if Labour were to win next year’s election, they would quietly drop their pledges to reverse the Coalition’s privatisations. Critics point to New Labour even accelerating the privatisation of public services after 1997.

When it comes to the NHS, I think this is unlikely, for several reasons.

Firstly, Ed Miliband is not Tony Blair. Tony Blair was much more of a despotic presidential leader, and excercised tight control over his Cabinet’s actions. Accordingly, his Health ministers would not have enjoyed the same security and independence that Andy Burnham (who is almost a Labour heavyweight now) does. Also, I doubt Ed Miliband has the ability to carelessly lie to the electorate that Blair has demonstrated. The Miliband fan club isn’t huge, but even his opponents are likely to concede that he’s honest.

Secondly, Labour has generally lived up to its stated main aim on healthcare. In 1997, it promised more resources for a service that was intentionally being run down. The NHS budget was then tripled in just 13 years. Blair might have discarded his opposition to PFI contracts (see below) and outsourcing, but he was only disappointing the few policy wonks who were paying attention.Today, Labour is stressing the importance of a publicly-owned NHS, and so this is where they will have to deliver.

Lastly, Andy Burnham is almost certain to retain the health brief for the duration of a Mililband government’s first term. Burnham is hugely popular with the party (and no threat to the leadership) and knows the health brief exceptionally well. His personal record is a sound one: as Health Secretary for the last year of the Brown government, he did not sign off a single PFI deal. He resisted further privatisation quite well for a relatively unknown figure in under a neo-liberal prime minister.

However, there are important limitations to what Labour is currently offering. They are merely proposing the restriction of outsourcing in the NHS, not its outright elimination. I don’t understand how the NHS can “put people before profit” when it is still infested with for-profit organisations running key services in a ridiculous ‘internal market’. This conflict of interests; of public good and commercial gain, is what leads to absurdities like Burger King franchises opening in NHS hospitals- which are struggling with a heart disease epidemic caused by excess consumption of junk food!

Furthermore, Labour is silent on the continued use of the awful Private Finance Initiative to fund almost all hospital construction projects. PFI deals see large corporations, not the Treasury, lending NHS trusts (or other public institutions) the money for project, in exchange for massively inflated and protracted repayments. Some hospitals pay 12 times the actual cost of a PFI construction project. A south London NHS Trust was recently bankrupted by its PFI deal, and many could follow in the next couple of decades. So why are politicians so in love with PFI?

PFI deals are kept off the Treasury books, so are not included in the National Debt. In this way, the £300 billion that Brits will pay for £55 billion worth of PFI projects is spirited away. We’ll still pay it, but at least we think the National Debt is 20% lower than it effectively is. Also, New Labour and the Tories were convinced that the private sector is more efficient than the public, even though we pay more than £5 for every £1 borrowed using PFI.

So in order to save the NHS, the government must spare it the drain on its resources that PFI repayments inflict. The government should enact a mass buyout of all PFI contracts at their face value; ban all new ones; and put in place a multibillion public works loans fund to replace PFI. This move would save the NHS over £40 billion over the next 25 years.

If the demise of the NHS were a horror film  (it feels like one!), Labour is offering to hit the ‘pause’ button. But Britain really needs somebody to reach a little further and ‘rewind’.

Jeremy Hunt and the Lowest Form of Politics

 

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Burnham (left): surviving bitter smears from Conservative opponents   

 

The National Health Service has always been a public service which has been the subject of furious debate among politicians. Debate has not been over its existence (though ‘Orange Book’ Liberal Democrats have questioned it) or necessarily over how it should be run, but about who can be trusted to run it. And at no time has this been fiercer than in the past week when Labour and the Conservatives have been blaming each other for the failings identified by the Keogh Report. Government MPs have blamed Andy Burnham, the Shadow Health Secretary who held the parallel role in the New Labour government in 2009-10, for the avoidable deaths of 13,000 patients. Jeremy Hunt has repeatedly called for Burnham’s resignation, despite having barely held on to his own Cabinet career.

14 NHS hospital trusts were subjected to emergency intervention after Keogh identified these as institutions in which persistent failings had led to the deaths of patients from 2005 to 2013. Various causes were identified, including lack of human and physical resources, a culture of ‘target chasing’ and mediocre management. However, the report disputes the figure of 13,000; Keogh believes that only a small percentage of that figure could in fact have been avoided. Furthermore, it was not Burnham who was responsible for the NHS in the year 2011-12, which Hunt claims was the “darkest day” for the Labour Party as “thousands” of patients died in the 14 trusts: Andrew Lansley had been Health Secretary for two years, but was probably preoccupied with his shambolic NHS privatisation legislation.

Keogh himself is deeply ashamed that the Government has attempted to politicise his findings, and has been overheard personally apologising to Burnham, who expressed regret that a “good report” was being distorted by ministers for what has been described as “low politics”. Certainly exaggerating mortality figures, blaming the blameless, and twisting a report that is solely concerned with looking after patients is not an ethically sound form of political debate. It is worse than George Osborne’s attempt to trace the causes of Mark Philpot’s killing of his children to welfare dependency. Not only is it utterly contemptible politics; it simply doesn’t make sense.

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Andy Burnham did not create the mediocrity in these hospitals, nor did he take any decision which either put patients at risk or covered up problems that existed. There is less basis for attributing deaths to him in his brief tenure at the Department of Health than there is to Andrew Lansley and Jeremy Hunt who between them took over three years to intervene in these hospitals. Therefore it is difficult to attribute any blame to ministers of either political hue: this is a collective failure of management and staff at lower levels. Should the Conservatives fail to adopt a non-partisan perspective, they will not succeed in convincing the British people that Andy Burnham, or the Labour Party as a whole, cannot be trusted to run the NHS. The Conservative leadership will be seen as doing what it is doing: playing games with Britain’s most treasured public service.

Under Burnham’s tenure, NHS performance was in most cases the best that it has been since the 1960s. Waiting times were at record lows; a number of new, high-quality hospitals had been built; and patient satisfaction was at an all-time high. As the Coalition’s privatisation and £20 billion of “efficiency savings” take their toll, it is not Labour which will be remembered for damaging our healthcare system. As the old saying goes: “Those in glass houses should not criticize the conduct of ministers who have implemented sound policies for the benefit of the public”.

 

 

Ed Miliband, Now In His Third Year

Ed Milliband MP speaking at the Labour Party c...

Ed Milliband MP(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This weekend, the Labour Party begins its third annual conference with Ed Milband as its leader. Labour in 2012 is almost unrecognisable from the recently defeated party of 2010. So the question I shall examine in this post is: how far has Labour advanced?

I am, as anybody who has being paying any attention to this blog will have noticed, a socialist. I am not an Old Labour dinosaur, but I would want to see the Left reject the neo-liberalism imposed by Blair in favour of a real ideology of progress, equality and opportunity for all. This was not what any of the candidates for leadership two years ago were offering, but some candidates were a lot closer than others:

  • David Miliband. Remember him? By far the most right-wing of any candidate, and also the most arrogant (and this probably lost him an election that he could easily have won). How could anyone find his endorsement of heartless spending cuts and derregulation inspiring?
  • Ed Miliband. He was my second preference, and his victory restored my dwindling faith in the party.
  • Dianne Abbot.  A rather nasty candidate of the “fake left”. She criticized other politicians for sending their children to grammar schools, and then sent a child of hers to the elite (private) City of London Boys School, citing her “West Indian ethnicity” as justification for this shameless hypocrisy.
  • Ed Balls. Another fake leftie. He’d make grand statements about the need to be more radical, and then come up with very little policy to back it up with.
  • Andy Burnham. By far my favourite candidate, but excluded from a lot of media coverage. Policies such as a Living Wage and a National Care Service  demonstrated his social responsibility, and he had a sensible deficit reduction strategy. Sadly, he was narrowly beaten into 4th place.

We all remember Ed beating David by 0.7% in the final round. And the trade unions being blamed for electing the “wrong Miliband”. In fact, it was trade union members who had 33.3% of the votes, and their votes are heavilly diluted as it is. And throughout his first year, Red Ed couldn’t do anything right. He spoke of the “future of capitalism” and observers rushed to declare how “nerdy” he was. He warned of another recession being created by Osborne’s Plan A (or “The Diabolical Plan”, as I like to call it) and he was lampooned by economists for wanting “irresponsible” boring plans. He earned a 7% lead in the polls and was condemned as failing to be popular enough! Indeed, 12 months ago there was dark talk of David challenging him for the leadership. How very different the political scene is now.

Labour is the party most trusted on the economy. Miliband is more popular than Cameron. Labour has a 14% lead over the Tories in many polls. But how much of this has Milband earned, rather than benefited from reaction against an ailing Government?

He has been unsatisfactorily vague an many areas of policy, and it is fully apparent that he is no radical reformer. However, much of what we have seen is encouraging, and shows that he is questioning some of the worst aspects of free-market capitalism. He is being far too cautious in his answers, but the very fact that the questions are being raised is an important first step. Take the energy market as an example. The political consensus has long been that state interference would be disastrous, and Milband has set out plans to strengthen regulations and open wholesale trading to control price rises. Yes, its a bit weak, but it shows that he does care about the living costs of the majority. And once Labour is back in touch with the 99%, the pressure for real progress will become irresistable.

Miliband is very much like Ted Heath. He will make a good, moderate Prime Minister, laying the foundations for political change, but will become the forerunner of the real groundbreaker. Onwards history marches.