John Pilger on how Labour's 'reforms' are destroying the NHS

Tony Benn predicts a revolution in defence of the National Health Service. But it may be too late to save it.

Lying back in a hospital ward, the procedure done and successful, a cup of tea going down nicely with the last of the morphine, you are a spectator to the best. By the best, I mean a glimpse of society with none of the dogmatic histrionics of a media and political class determined to change the way we think. That is the worst. By the best I mean, unforgettably, the spectacle of the miners of Murton, County Durham, emerging from the mist of a cold March morning, with the women marching first, going back to the pit. No matter their defeat by superior forces, they were the best.

In a hospital ward, the best is more likely mundane, with people working routinely, listening, responding, reassuring. Their vocabulary is not corporate-speak. Their "productivity" is not a device of profit. Their commitment has no bottom line, and their camaraderie is like a presence; and you become part of it. The common thread is humanity and caring. How exotic that sounds. Turn on the ward's television and there is a weird other-world of "news", with famous dullards spinning the latest destruction of society.

There is the mad Blair calling for an attack on Iran and Ed Balls peddling his dodgy diplomas, and Gordon Brown, fresh from entertaining Rupert Murdoch and Alan Greenspan, announcing his "return of liberty" along with his latest "reforms" that are malignancies on the one institution that embodies liberty: the National Health Service. None of them has the slightest connection with the people running my ward. The divide in modern Britain is between a society represented by those who keep the NHS going, and its mutation epitomised by new Labour.

In Michael Moore's Sicko, Tony Benn predicts a revolution in Britain if the NHS is abolished. But the NHS is being destroyed by attrition, and if the latest "reforms" are not stopped, it will be too late to erect barricades. On 5 October, the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, approved a list of 14 companies that will advise on and take over the "commissioning" of NHS services. They will be given influence, if not eventually control, over which treatments patients receive and who provides them. They are assured multimillions in profits.

They include the US companies UnitedHealth, Aetna and Humana. These totalitarian organisations have been repeatedly fined for their notorious role in the American health-care system. Last year, UnitedHealth's chief executive, William McGuire, who was paid $125m a year, resigned following a share-option scandal. In September, the company agreed to pay out $20m in fines "for failures in processing claims and responding to patient complaints". Aetna has had to pay $120m in damages after a California jury found it guilty of "malice, oppression and fraud". In Sicko, a medical reviewer for Humana is shown testifying to Congress that she caused the death of a man by denying him care in order to save the company money. Every year, some 18,000 Americans die because they are denied health care or they cannot afford it.

These companies are new Labour's friends. Simon Stevens, Blair's former health policy adviser, is now a CEO at UnitedHealth. Julian Le Grand, writing in the Guardian as a distinguished professor, gives his learned approval to the "reforms" - he, too, was Blair's adviser.

In Manchester, other "reforms" are well on the way to destroying NHS services for the mentally ill. William Scott committed suicide after losing the support of an NHS worker who had cared for him for eight years. What all this means is that the NHS is being softened up for privatisation by stealth. This is the undeclared policy of the Brown government, whose rapacious actions abroad are mirrored at home. It was chancellor Brown who promoted the disastrous private finance initiative as a device to build new hospitals, while handing huge profits to favoured companies. As a result, NHS trusts are bled by £700m a year. This has caused a wholly unnecessary "financial crisis" that is the catch-22 rationale for allowing more profiteers to take over what was a Labour government's greatest achievement. Will we allow them to get away with it?

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq uncovered

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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.