The question Lib Dem MPs must ask themselves

Will passing the health bill improve patient outcomes in the NHS?

There appears to be some confusion as to what the Lib Dem members were saying about The Health and Social Care Bill at Spring Conference over the weekend. Let me attempt to clarify things.

In short we are asking our MPs and Peers to decide if the cost of passing the Health and Social Care Bill is a price worth paying.

We don't like this bill. We trust our Conservative coalition partners on the NHS about as far as we can throw them. Our peers have done a tremendous job at amending the bill but it still has a very bad smell hanging around it. Even Nick made clear in his speech to conference that "this isn't a Liberal Democrat bill".

Nonetheless, there are some good things in the bill. No one pretends the NHS is perfect. Even Andy Burnham - who wrote an open letter to all Lib Dem members last week - says there is work to do to "enable the NHS to make some of the difficult service changes it needs to make to have a care model ready for the challenges of this century".

But everyone in the party does agree on one thing. Somehow - oh, how has this been allowed to happen - we have been manoeuvred into a position whereby if the bill passes, in the eyes of the electorate the responsibility for it will lie with us. And even if in the long term it turns out that supporters of the bill are right and the NHS improves through the passing of this bill, we wont get any of the credit, and we will get still get hammered by the voters for passing it. The cost of allowing this legislation comes with a heavy price tag for the Lib Dems.

So here is the question our Parliamentarians need to consider. It is perhaps a fairly obvious question - but in the midst of negotiations both around the bill and within the party, it is one that hasn't been asked enough.

Are you absolutely convinced that passing this bill will improve all patient outcomes in the NHS?

If you are - and I'm duty bound to point out this means you believe you know better than just about every professional healthcare body in the country - then you must pass this bill, no matter what the electoral cost to the party. It may mean another 80 years of electoral oblivion but if that's what you believe, you should put the NHS before the party.

But if you're not sure (and until the Risk Register is published, how can you be?), then is the cost of passing, as Nick calls it, the Conservatives' Health and Social Care Bill a price worth paying?

The members have done their bit and been clear that they don't think that it is.

But it's up to you now.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Labour's trajectory points to landslide defeat, but don't bet on a change at the top any time soon

The settled will among Jeremy Corbyn's critics that they need to keep quiet is unlikely to be disrupted by the result. 

Labour were able to tread water against Ukip in Stoke but sank beneath the waves in Copeland, where the Conservatives’ Trudy Harrison won the seat.

In Stoke, a two-point swing away from Labour to the Tories and to Ukip, which if replicated across the country at a general election would mean 15 Conservative gains and would give Theresa May a parliamentary majority of 40.

And in Copeland, a 6.7 per cent swing for Labour to Tory that would see the Conservatives pick up 52 seats from Labour if replicated across the country, giving them a majority of 114.
As the usual trend is for the opposition to decline from its midterm position at a general election, these are not results that indicate Labour will be back in power after the next election.. That holds for Stoke as much as for Copeland.

The last time a governing party won a by-election was 1982 – the overture to a landslide victory. It’s the biggest by-election increase in the vote share of a governing party since 1966 – the prelude to an election in which Harold Wilson increased his majority from 4 to 96.

To put the length of Labour’s dominance in Copeland into perspective: the new Conservative MP was born in 1976. The last Conservative to sit for Copeland, William Nunn, was born in 1879.

It’s a chastening set of results for Ukip, too. The question for them: if they can’t win when Labour is in such difficulties, when will they?

It’s worth noting, too, that whereas in the last parliament, Labour consistently underperformed its poll rating in local elections and by-elections, indicating that the polls were wrong, so far, the results have been in keeping with what the polls suggest. They are understating the Liberal Democrats a little, which is what you’d expect at this stage in the parliament. So anyone looking for comfort in the idea that the polls will be wrong again is going to look a long time. 

Instead, every election and every poll – including the two council elections last night – point in the same direction: the Conservatives have fixed their Ukip problem but acquired a Liberal Democrat one. Labour haven’t fixed their Ukip problem but they’ve acquired a Liberal Democrat one to match.

But that’s just the electoral reality. What about the struggle for political control inside the Labour party?

As I note in my column this week, the settled view of the bulk of Corbyn’s internal critics is that they need to keep quiet and carry on, to let Corbyn fail on its his own terms. That Labour won Stoke but lost Copeland means that consensus is likely to hold.

The group to watch are Labour MPs in what you might call “the 5000 club” – that is, MPs with majorities around the 5000 mark. An outbreak of panic in that group would mean that we were once again on course for a possible leadership bid.

But they will reassure themselves that this result suggests that their interests are better served by keeping quiet at Westminster and pointing at potholes in their constituencies.  After all, Corbyn doesn’t have a long history of opposition to the major employer in their seats.

The other thing to watch from last night: the well-advertised difficulties of the local hospital in West Cumberland were an inadequate defence for Labour in Copeland. Distrust with Labour in the nuclear industry may mean a bigger turnout than we expect from workers in the nuclear industries in the battle to lead Unite, with all the consequences that has for Labour’s future direction.

If you are marking a date in your diary for another eruption of public in-fighting, don’t forget the suggestion from John McDonnell and Diane Abbott that the polls will have turned by the end of the year – because you can be certain that Corbyn’s critics haven’t. But if you are betting on any party leader to lose his job anytime soon, put it on Nuttall, not Corbyn.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.