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: info@compassonline.org.uk

Martin Bright returns next week