Labour should learn from the National Health Action Party, not strangle it

The anti-privatisation party is pioneering a new sort of politics.

Yesterday, at just about the time the Chancellor was getting to his feet to give his Autumn Statement, I met with the leadership of Britain’s newest political party the National Health Action Party (NHAP). Launched in November, the party consists of medics and health academics to fight the commercialisation and break-up of the NHS. The question is why do they feel they are necessary and what does this tell us about the state of party politics?

Lets start with reaction of at least one person in the Labour Party to the NHAP.  Paul Richards, a former special adviser and now regular commentator, said on their launch that the NHAP "must be strangled at birth" as it might deprive Labour of valuable seats. There are at least two responses we could make to Paul’s rather emotive desire.  The first is how does he know where the NHAP are going to stand candidates? And second – how come, even for a moment, he didn’t consider why they felt it was necessary to form a party to save the NHS – or more bluntly why they no longer trusted Labour with that task?

What Paul’s reaction revealed was the darkest side of ‘Laboursim’, a culture which is just about dominant within the party. It believes that if you knock on enough doors, deliver enough leaflets, elect enough Labour MPs – then they will occupy the state on a majority basis and deliver socialism to the people. Anything that gets in the way of that obvious and clear cut process must be destroyed or "strangled at birth". Indeed, the rather obvious failure to deliver socialism can only be the fault of people who get in Labour’s way – ‘it can't be our fault so it must be them’.  Hence the rather Freudian anger at the doctors but also the Liberal Democrats, Caroline Lucas, Plaid Cymru, Respect, and any independents. Someone get the couch – we need a psychologist, not a surgeon.

So ingrained is the belief in this top-down of theory of change that if "socialism is what a Labour government does" (as Herbert Morrison phrased it) then what ever it does must be socialism.  So setting the bankers free to wreck the economy is wrapped up in the glorious and crucial sound bite of New Labour that "social justice and economic efficiency go hand in hand". It means ‘let capitalism rip and we will top skim the cream and give a bit it to the poor, not least the NHS.'

But the economic efficiency side of the equation cast its shadow over everything. First you had to hide any redistribution as it was anti-free market and eventually obediently lower taxes to a level that would help wreck the country's finances. In addition, investment in the NHS had to be through capital friendly PFI schemes. Doctors and nurses could not be trusted to manage delivery themselves, there could be no public service ethos, instead they had to be forced to compete through the creation of quasi-markets and contestability – or they had to beaten over the head with ridged performance targets that always ended in with one box being ticked at the cost of failure elsewhere. Private sector clinics were brought and the likes of Virgin Health and Circle encouraged along their merry profitable way.  The Tories have of course picked up on all this and will push it to its logical conclusion.  They want to see hospitals fail and go bankrupt, they want to see chaos – out of chaos, just like the banking crash, they will say this is the fault of the big state – what we need is full privatisation. The NHS offends their free market principles and they will not rest until every element of it has a price tag.

So maybe we can see why the medics, health academics and campaigners are a tad nervous about sitting back and trusting Labour. Some of the very people who are saying warmer and kinder things now were there when all this happened. The NHAP know the currency that matters most is votes. And they intend to grab them. Not to hurt Labour, they aren’t stupid, though a thoroughly New Labour scalp would feel be nice for them I’m sure. No, the people in their sights will be the Orange Bookers and the Tories. If Labour is sensible and not just tribal, it might recognise the electoral dividend of such a move – or it could try to strangle them at birth. 

The people leading the NHAP are brave and daring. They feel like pioneers of a new sort of politics, just as Labour’s original pioneers were after becoming disillusioned with the Liberals. They are more than a single-issue party but are using a single issue to raise issues of equality, power and democracy. They refuse to fit within the narrow confines of the Labourist model that denies you any voice and any say. In a world defined by Facebook, and everything that is good and bad about it, people want to form different identities and relationships at different times. The straitjacket of obedience and conformity cannot be placed over the complexity and diversity of the future.

This is just the taste of things to come. British party politics is entering a volatile phase. Expectations have never been lower about what the two main parties can deliver. Witness exactly how much more growth would come from Labour’s five-point plan. But if Labour remains necessary to the possibility of radical change it is far from sufficient. The fight for totemic issues such as tax justice feel remote from it as do the real change makers out there like 38 Degrees, UK Uncut and Mumsnet.

Labour is going to have to change its ways if it wants to live in the real world – a world now a million miles from the rigid, disciplined and hierarchical structures of an essentially Victorian age. Ed Miliband knows this, as does the Labour for Democracy network that launched this week. It is not just a policy change Labour needs for a good society, but a culture change.

P.S.  Sorry this is personal but linked. This week makes the 20th anniversary of the Valley Party, the one-off Greenwich based political party who stood candidates to get Charlton Athletic back to its famous ground. They didn’t win a seat but harvested so many votes that the Labour council caved in and gave them what they wanted. Let's hope the same is true for the NHS.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

Demonstrators protest against the government's Health and Social Care Bill in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.