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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.