We lost. But the fight continues

Labour cannot let the coalition ruin the NHS.

It was a tense two days: attention was focused, argument was heeded. Heads nodded in agreement. There was no barracking. We're a polite lot in the Lords. The second reading of the Health and Social Care Bill was introduced by the Health Minister the Earl Howe. He was universally praised for the thoughtful and exact way he introduced this legislation. Willowy of stature with a slick of grey hair his quiet voice commanded the Chamber. He could, as Labour Baroness Donaghy remarked have "made this Titanic of a Bill sound like one of Abromovitch's yachts". We're a polite lot in the Lords but we make our differences clear.

There were 100 speakers over a day and a half, with 41 of them women, and up to six bishops sitting together, their white sleeves billowing like foam on the bishops' benches. The Archbishop of York made a powerful speech in favour of Lord Owen's amendment that proposed the setting up of a new Select Committee to scrutinise contentious issues around the duties of the legal accountability of the Secretary of State, such a Committee to run in parellel as the House of Lords itself debated remaining clauses. But first there was Labour Peer Lord Rea's amendment that "this House declines to give the bill a second reading...." Labour peers voted for both and both amendments would be lost, by 134 and 68 respectively.

Many cited their personal background: Baroness Kennedy spoke of her surgeon husband's family, a dynasty of doctors who wanted no part of anything other than a publicly funded and provided National Health Service: Lord Alderdice spoke of his extensive medical family too: sadly they were on different sides. Everyone spoke of being inundated with letters, emails and briefings. Passions ran high: some of us feared the NHS was being handed over to privatisation. Baroness Murphy called this "twaddle". Baroness Bottomley called it "romantic poppycock" and gave a warm welcome to the bill. She also managed to praise the merits of Tesco, a connection that didn't seem appropriate. Lord Mawhinny condemned what he believed was an unprecedented.level of scaremongering. Those of us who are genuinely scared spoke of the risk of the free market, of going the way of America which spends 2.4 times more on health per person than Britain and yet has life expectancy levels lower than here.

By the end of day one the numbers in the Chamber had thinned. Former trade unionist Bill Morris's turn to speak came at around midnight. But next morning the Chamber steadily filled up. The ailing Philip Gould turned up to support Labour; the recently widowed Lord Saatchi arrived to support the coalition. Some wondered whether Mrs Thatcher might come among us.

At the last minute there was a sudden flurry of discussion about whether Lord Owen's proposals could be brought in by a certain date. Last minute expectations and fears coalesced around this minor spat. And then it was time to line up in the lobbies.

And so we lost. Being fewer in number, Labour could only have carried the day if enough Cross benchers and Lib Dems came across and voted with us. And not enough did. So the Bill now goes to its committee stage, a time when a cascade of amendments will be tabled, each one argued to death and perhaps significant changes brought to this unwieldy and unwelcome bill. We face hard days ahead, but every inch gained will be worth it. We all know that the British public want the NHS to survive as they know it, only better. Labour were on the way to doing that. We can't let the coalition ruin it.

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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition