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

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

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

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.