Milburn's challenge to Labour on NHS reform

Former health secretary argues that Labour should take up the mantle of radical reform.

The Tories lack the public trust needed to radically reform the NHS, so Labour must. That's the striking message of Alan Milburn's essay in tomorrow's New Statesman. Tony Blair's former health secretary argues that Andrew Lansley's bill, "riddled with complexity and compromise", means the Tories have "forfeited any claim to be the party of NHS reform."

He writes:

Obsessed with policy tinkering, Lansley ignored the politically inconvenient truth that the Conservatives simply did not have enough public trust on the NHS to inflict change within it. The baggage they carried of being ideologically obsessed with privatisation weighed them down once they hit a wave of opposition to their health reforms. They are drowning as a result.

From here, he urges Labour to take up the mantle of reform. The left has the opposite problem to the right, Milburn argues. While it has the permission to make change, it lacks the volition. He writes:

Too often the left in Europe has shied away from such an apporach. It has adopted a protectionist rather than a reformist approach to the public services. The left's default position has been to stand up for producers, not consumers. Defending the status quo in a world of such rapid change has proved to be a recipe for electoral disaster. In France, Germany, Italy, Spain, even Sweden, the left has suffered consecutive election defeats where until recently it could lay claim to be the natural party of government. As New Labour proved, it is not by being protectionist but by being reformist that the left is able to win.

He urges Labour to embrace reforms that "empower patients, financially incentivise outcomes, increase competition, improve transparency and devolve accountability to local care organisations."

If that sounds remarkably similar to Lansley's vision for the NHS, it's because it is. Milburn's objection to the coalition's approach isn't a principled one but a pragmatic one. In his view, only Labour, the party that founded the NHS and restored it to health, has the political trust required to introduce Lansley-style reforms.

It's a message that sits uneasily with Labour's current approach. As David Cameron rightly noted at today's PMQs, it was Ed Miliband's party that first introduced private competition into the NHS in 2008. For now, with Cameron on the ropes, Labour is in no mood to reflect on this fact. But Milburn's essay will reignite the debate about what the party is for, rather than merely against.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.