Labour: NHS to be a "defining issue" at the next election

Ed Miliband turns his attention to the coalition's disastrous health bill.

Ramping up his recent attacks on the coalition's controversial health bill, Labour leader Ed Miliband today told nurses at the Royal Bolton Hospital that the NHS will be a:

defining issue

at the next general election.

He was instantly mocked for saying so by the usual suspects. I'm not sure why. As I said on Twitter this morning, it's not rocket science. The polls have Labour ahead of the Conservatives on the NHS (and the Opposition has doubled its lead over the Tories on health since the election); the health bill has so far been a PR disaster for the coalition (Cameron's "poll tax", in the helpful words of one of his Conservative cabinet colleagues); Miliband bests Cameron in PMQs every time the NHS comes up; and Cameron, of course, used the NHS to try and "detoxify" his party ahead of the last general election so there's no reason why Labour can't now use the health bill to try and retoxify the Tories.

Some on the right recognise this point. As the Spectator's Peter Hoskin observed:

If the NHS is the closest thing we have to a national religion, then the Labour leader is hoping to stir up some sectarian fervour.

And as ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie put it:

The NHS Bill is not just a distraction from all of this but potentially fatal to the Conservative Party's electoral prospects.

Or is it? Some have argued that the NHS doesn't win Labour general elections. That's arguable. Others say that the economy should be the "decisive issue". But, hold on, Miliband didn't say health would be "the" defining issue at the next election; he said it would be "a" defining issue. Get the difference? There's absolutely no reason why the economy (growth, jobs, living standards, vested interests, etc) and health can't both bedefining issues come 2015.

YouGov's Peter Kellner says:

It's possible the saga of the NHS could resemble that of Thatcher's privatisation: people, if asked, say they are against change, but not to the extent of switching their vote. The verdict that will matter will come after reform, when people can judge by results. If the Health Bill is enacted, patients and their relatives will be able to cast their votes at the next election on the basis of experience. If the much-maligned Andrew Lansley is proved right, and the NHS provides a better service, then there is no reason why the Tories will suffer.

However, if the Bill's critics are right, and the NHS deteriorates, then the electorate may exact fierce revenge. David Cameron has fought so hard to dispel old fears that the Tories don't really care about the NHS: those fears may come rushing back. If Ed Miliband has managed to restore at least partially Labour's reputation for competence, then we could see something that has happened only once before in the past 80 years: a Government being booted out after just one term in office.

Here's hoping, eh? And, indeed, as the False Economy website argues in a new factsheet, the health bill will lead to more bureaucracy, longer waiting times and "a postcode lottery on a scale not seen before". Good luck Dave!

On a side note, here's a link to my column in today's Independent, headlined: "Follow Obama, Ed, and get in touch with your inner populist". Enjoy!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.