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. 

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder