Wanted: a new bedside manner

After years of the wrong reforms, the NHS needs democratising and popularising. The left must win th

The government has gone at least two weeks without a disaster. If the froth is settling, what is the actual story as the election is pushed on to the back burner? The purpose of any centre-left government is to use the state to ensure that accidents of birth do not blight people's lives. The brute luck of not being born rich, bright or healthy demands social action to ensure that all have the resources and opportunity to make the most of their lives.

This is why public services matter and why the goal of new Labour was to renew them, in particular the National Health Service. When he got the top job, Gordon Brown said health was his priority but education was his passion. The NHS needs to be both. After years of Tory neglect, Labour pledged to treat it with equal measures of investment and reform. A decade on, however, the attempt to reinvent a role for the state is clearly running out of steam. The issue is not yet the money, but the wrong reforms. Never has so much been spent creating so much disillusionment among staff and public alike.

In his New Year message Brown said he would make the right long-term decisions. He refloated the idea of a written constitution for the NHS, setting out the rights and responsibilities of staff, patients and all stakeholders. This portrays it as a depoliticised, "what works" organisation and speaks of an underlying loss of direction. Meanwhile, Lord Darzi, the health minister with the task of rethinking the future of the service, gave an interview calling for it to be more like Tesco. Surely he knows the NHS cannot work like a supermarket, providing choice through excess supply thrown away each night?

While ministers want the NHS to be more like a market, the government still operates it like a machine, with all the unintended risk of failure. News that accident and emergency departments are wasting £2bn hastily putting patients into beds and discharging them the next day, so that they don't miss their four-hour waiting target, exposes a system of Stalinist dysfunctionality.

Diversity and equity

If Brown wants to use the gap before the next election to put the NHS on a sound footing he must start by understanding it as a political entity. It is a social democratic bubble in a capitalist society, a place where we feel free from commercial pressures but that can't avoid being contaminated by market forces and values surrounding it. It is perhaps the key battleground in the ongoing struggle between society and the market.

The market has long eyed the NHS and its huge budgets and limitless demand as a cash cow. Without sufficient regulatory and moral barriers, the market will cherry-pick patients and services that return the highest margins. Yet new Labour refuses to recognise any contradictions between the needs of society and the demands of the market. Everything is opened up to the market, which is deemed the most efficient way of allocating resources.

In awe of the likes of Tesco, new Labour has created the supermarket state - but one run by a politburo. By combining US free markets with Soviet-style planning, we leave ourselves with the worst of all worlds: a mix of machines and markets that are unaccoun table, unjust and inefficient.

If machines and markets are the wrong reform models, what should the centre left advocate? We must embrace reform because the world has changed. The NHS of 1948 is no longer fit for purpose: the world of deference has given way to a world of autonomy in which people rightly want a say in shaping institutions such as the NHS.

But there lies the problem. The centre left wants equity (its core value), but must embrace diversity (the modern setting) to ensure both innovation and responsive delivery. Yet diversity leads to difference, not equity. This creates a paradox that cannot be solved, only managed. But how?

Instead of wave after wave of reform, bouncing from concerns about equity to diversity and back again, the people who experience the paradox - the staff and users - should be directly engaged in deciding the shifting relationship between how much equity and how much diversity. They must live and manage the paradox. This is the argument for democratisation of the NHS and other crucial public services.

Democracy has two distinct benefits. On instrumental grounds, opening up the design of services to staff and users would transform the productivity and efficiency of the NHS. It is the people at the sharp end of providing and receiving care who know best how to deliver it and what they want. Reform then becomes organic and truly adaptable, and not forced through a rigid machine or unjust markets.

There is an equally important intrinsic benefit of democracy. Through our collective voice, we demonstrate the common ownership of the NHS as a site of social citizenship, which we value not just because it makes us well, but because it makes us more equal and puts us in control of our world. Democracy is the means and ends of the good society.

So, at every level, the reform programme of the government should be democratisation. General practices could be revolutionised through collective patient power, primary care trusts scrutinised by local authorities, and health boards elected at the regional level. Spreading the notion that services are best co-produced by staff and patients would lead to a quantum leap in personalisation and performance.

The process of democratisation would allow the NHS to be remoralised rather than demoralised. It is crucial that we place this moral safety net under the NHS. As the economy takes a turn for the worse and public spending declines, the service needs a moral underpinning. Competence is never enough. This was Labour's failure over the Winter of Discontent in 1979, which opened the door to Thatcherism.

I have written about all this in a pamphlet, to be published on 10 January by Compass, called Machines, Markets and Morals: the New Politics of a Democratic NHS. Just before the Christmas break, I asked Alan Johnson to debate the pamphlet. The Health Secretary's office declined, not because he was busy or disagreed with all of it, but because some of it was "off-message". Now Johnson is a capable politician whom I like a lot, but surely he can see the irony of refusing to discuss the democratisation of the NHS because we don't agree on every dot and comma. I know he can do better than that.

He must - because democracy offers a permanent settlement for the NHS. Not sclerosis, but a way of dealing with the paradox of equity and diversity as we search for a politics that is both modern and left, new and Labour.

If Labour cannot popularise the National Health Service as an institution that embodies the values of the left, the notion of solidarity will come under threat of extinction in an increasingly individualised and consumerised world. After all, we should all be equal in our pyjamas.

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass. His pamphlet on the future of the National Health Service is available by emailing:

Martin Bright returns next week

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis