The Government has broken a critical promise on the NHS

A new regulation means that every service commissioned will have to be open either to competitive tendering or the Any Qualified Provider system.

“The NHS is safe in our hands”, the government has been proclaiming - and it promised last year that it wouldn't be forcing competition into the new system for commissioning services.

Yet, surreptitiously, Jeremy Hunt has introduced in the National Health Service (Procurement, Patient Choice and Competition) Regulations 2013 (S.I., 2013, No. 257) - a regulation that does just that. Every service commissioned, with a very small number of exceptions, will have to be open either to competitive tendering or the Any Qualified Provider system. These are bureaucratic, dull-sounding, words, which could have a huge impact.

Unless there's a big public and parliamentary outcry, this fundamental change to the NHS will open almost every aspect of the NHS to the foreign multinational healthcare companies and money-draining, staff-exploiting ways. And it is a massive broken promise. A widely publicised letter from then Health Secretary Andrew Lansley on 16 February 2012, issued as the Health and Social Care Bill struggled to get through parliament, said: "It is a fundamental principle of the Bill that you as commissioners, not the Secretary of State and not regulators, should decide when and how competition should be used to serve your patients’ interests."

Jeremy Hunt has just spectacularly broken that promise - and he must not be allowed to get away with it.

Under his plan the regulator Monitor will be able to decide when commissioners have breached competition regulations, will be able to set aside contracts and impose competitive tendering and the offer of Any Qualified Provider. Green MP Caroline Lucas is with Ed Miliband jointly proposing a “prayer” (that’s the official form – and a further argument for modernisation of parliamentary procedure), that if it wins sufficient parliamentary support could at least force parliament to debate the regulations. (Please email your MP to ask them to back it – EDM No 1104.)

Public opposition is also going to be important – please sign the 38 Degrees petition.

If allowed the come into effect, the damage caused by these regulation will be almost irreversible, since once our much-valued local hospitals and services are broken up, it would take an immense amount of money to re-establish them.

Moving towards an American-style system, immensely expensive, profit-driven, which doesn't put the needs of patients first, is an ongoing disaster (we’ve already gone far too far down this road, and been seeing the consequences) and this is a big step on the accelerator towards that.

I’m delighted that Green Party spring conference last weekend strongly backed an emergency motion opposing Jeremy Hunt’s regulation, and restating our commitment to a publicly owned and publicly run NHS.

The Hunt regulations are part of a broader government direction that’s clearly driven by ideology. This government has a simple mantra – private good, public bad. Despite the fact that we know that outsourcing is a disastrous, expensive model that delivers poor services and slashes wages, this government is wedded to this ideology – just as is far too much of the top bureaucracy of the NHS, who either come from the private health sector, or are the glossy recipients of mediocre MBAs, who’ve learnt a few neo-liberal management mantras and know nothing else.

The NHS is a world-admired system, which despite the damage done by the marketising trend that started under Margaret Thatcher and was enhanced by Tony Blair’s Labour, still provides for the vast majority of Britons superb quality healthcare, which they receive independent of their financial status. The system is under strain, with our ageing population, increasingly expensive medical technology and massive drug company profits. And it is under attack from a rightwing media that’s backing the privatising agenda.

We do need to make improvements, particularly to focus more on prevention than treating people when they’re ill, and ensure that perverse incentives and bad management don’t produce more Mid Staffs, but bleeding off billions in profit to multinational health companies is not only financial madness, it will also result in huge damage to the service we all receive – and all need.

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

Jeremy Hunt. Photograph: Getty Images

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide