Lansley’s NHS reforms will undermine fairness

Another organisational shake-up does not surprise doctors, but this is a much bolder move towards pr

Andrew Lansley has launched a white paper that has been heralded as the biggest shake-up of the NHS in a generation.

The key proposals are:

  • Abolishing ten strategic health authorities by 2012 and scrapping the 152 primary care trusts by 2013. This would mean that up to 30,000 managers face being cut or redeployed.
  • Replacing these management structures with about 500 GP "consortiums" (not optional), meaning that family doctors will have control of £80bn of public money.
  • Allowing hospitals to leave public ownership to become "not-for-profit" companies.

The first thing to note is that the NHS has been in a state of almost continuous reform for nearly three decades. There has been some form of organisational change almost every year since the early 1990s. Many of these changes resemble each other; 2002's primary care trusts were difficult to distinguish from 1982's district health authorities. The same goes for NHS trusts and foundation hospitals.

The cumulative effect -- apart from the fact that most new structures don't have time to show positive effects before they are changed again -- is cynicism in the medical profession, as evident in this doctor's blog:

As the ministers and commentators observe the effects of their "bold vision" and "strategic planning", I am happy to tell them how much difference this will make to most Jobbing Doctors -- very little. You see, we have seen this all before.

Under the internal market established by Margaret Thatcher, and not-much-changed by Tony Blair, GPs surgeries already operate much like private businesses that commission services from hospitals. Equally, under private finance initiatives, private companies have been involved in building numerous new hospitals.

But what the new plans do amount to is a much bolder and more open step towards privatisation of the National Health Service. As with so many of the coalition's reforms, the move towards less bureaucracy is not matched by guarantees of accountability, which are needed to maintain a consistent standard countrywide.

Oddly enough, Melanie Phillips makes a good point about this:

It also surely runs the risk of fragmenting the service, since GPs will try to look after their own clinical patch rather than the general good. And this gets to the crux of the problem. A national service needs to offer unified provision throughout the country in order to be seen to be equitable.

Yesterday, Lansley spoke of the need for competition and choice, echoing Thatcher's market ideology, ignoring that last time this was implemented, we were left with a hugely unfair postcode lottery. Lest we forget, the much-reviled target culture did produce results, with waiting list figures, among others, drastically improved (LabourList has some numbers here).

The NHS was founded on the principle of fairness. Let's not undermine that by restructuring the system in such a way that it has no mechanisms to help that fairness flourish.

Subscription offer: Get 12 issues for just £12 PLUS a free copy of "The Idea of Justice" by Amartya Sen.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser