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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Do you see yourself as British or English? The answer could help define modern politics

The rise of English identity has left a glaring space in politics for an English nationalist party. Who is going to fill it?

Political scientists call it the “Moreno question”. In the 1980s, the Spanish academic Luis Moreno Fernández came up with a test for identity, which was originally applied to gauge interest in Catalan independence. In its English incarnation, it asks voters to grade themselves from “I feel more British than English” to “I feel more English than British”. Unsurprisingly, Ukip does best among those who describe themselves as “English, not British”, while Labour’s vote rises the more people see themselves as British. In the biggest group – the 47 per cent who see themselves as equally English and British – the Tories lead.

The Moreno question helps us make sense of three interlinking trends in modern politics. First, the stark fact that in the 2015 election, a different party won in each nation of the United Kingdom: Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Second, Ukip’s lack of success north of the border: the Herald reported in July that Ukip’s only elected representative in the country, David Coburn MEP, had been forced to take on the role of treasurer at his local branch in Fife because it has so few members. Third, Labour’s declining performance in its historic northern heartlands. Many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour and don’t feel that Labour is it.

Devolution has had many unexpected consequences, but the rise of an English identity is one of the least explored. Because of its demographic dominance, mainstream politicians have long argued that it would be unfair to give England its own parliament. Labour is particularly resistant to the idea because it would magnify the Conservatives’ power. As it is, the principle of “English votes for English laws” will exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the grand committee-stage hearings on grammar schools, because education is a devolved matter.

However, the last general election showed that there’s a problem with English voters feeling ignored. In Worcester, the Tory MP Robin Walker told me in April 2015 that arguments about the SNP holding Labour to ransom cut through on the doorstep. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying, ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us,’” he said. Many English voters felt that the SNP would be a successful lobby group at Westminster for Scotland’s interests. Where was their equivalent?

For John Denham, the former Labour MP who now leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the same dynamic applied this summer in the EU referendum campaign. “Scotland got ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’,” he tells me. “England had to put up with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. That was an elite campaign run by people who think Britain and England are the same thing.”

Once again, the Moreno question helps us understand a fundamental divide among English voters. Denham says that 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those who called themselves “British only” voted Remain.

Denham thinks that this presents an enormous challenge for Labour in northern seats where Ukip is in second place, given that its intellectuals and leading politicians feel so squeamish about Englishness. “If Labour continues as a cosmopolitan, liberal party that doesn’t want anything to do with the politics of identity,” he warns, “it won’t reach those voters.”

Other politicians worry that if Labour doesn’t occupy this space, another party will. “As nationalists go, the SNP is pretty good,” a senior left-wing politician told me recently. “An English nationalist party could be something altogether more nasty.”

In this light, the election of Diane James as the leader of Ukip looks like a rare stroke of luck for Labour. She is a southerner, educated at Rochester Grammar School, and an MEP for south-east England. Although she is polished and professional – albeit prone to outbursts of admiration for Vladimir Putin – she seems unlikely to appeal on an emotional level to working-class white voters in the north, where the greatest potential for an English nationalist party lies. Thanks to Ukip’s Caligulan internal politics, the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall (from Bootle), did not stand and the charismatic Steven Woolfe (from Burnage) was excluded from the race after the party’s executive committee ruled that he had submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes after the deadline. (Another potential candidate, Suzanne Evans, was suspended by the party, and pretty much everyone else in Ukip seems to hate its only MP, Douglas Carswell.)

If not Labour, or Ukip, perhaps the Conservatives? Theresa May’s rebranding of the party, complete with articles on bringing back grammar schools in the Daily Mail, shows that she is pitching for Ukip-leaners. “In terms of language and biography, she has a better understanding of that struggling, socially conservative, English nationalist voter than Cameron did,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of Revolt on the Right. He believes that any party that thinks a simple economic message can sway these voters is underestimating the “emotive” nature of identity-based politics. “It’s no use going to Sunderland and saying, ‘We’re going to nationalise the trains,’ and thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us.’”

There is another option. A new party could be born, perhaps even out of the ashes of post-referendum Ukip: Arron Banks, its mega-donor, has said that he fancies the idea. With the right leader, nationalist sentiment could spread like wildfire among the “English, not British”. And, as Nigel Farage has shown, you don’t need to get elected to Westminster to have an effect.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times