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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.

Tags:NHS