Labour recognises that it could end up closing hospitals too

The party's plan to integrate health and social care makes sense fiscally and clinically but the politics could be more difficult to navigate.

Up to a point, the politics of the NHS are easy for Labour. No one doubts the strength of feeling towards the health service in the party that built it. By contrast, many voters suspect the Tories wish it harm, which is why an oath of allegiance to the NHS was a central part of David Cameron’s attempt to “decontaminate” his party’s brand in opposition.

Specifically, the Conservative leader pledged to protect health spending and avoid “top-down reorganisations.” By 2015 the NHS will be suffering from a funding crisis, exacerbated by a vast reorganisation that smells enough like privatisation by stealth to cause the Conservatives bountiful political harm.

The "safety first" option for Labour is to watch this grizzly spectacle unfold, and march against it under a “Save our NHS” banner. This will certainly be a feature of the 2015 campaign. But it is to the credit of Labour’s shadow health team – Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall – that they are thinking a bit deeper about how their party might run the health service if it actually formed a government.

The NHS is heading towards a financial crunch, driven by the rising cost of treatment and an ageing population, regardless of the immediate fiscal challenge facing the Treasury. In other words, even if George Osborne’s economic plans were working (and they’re not), even if growth and revenues returned to pre-crisis levels, even if every household in Britain urged the government to tax them some more out of sheer love for the NHS, it would need structural reforms to make it financially sustainable. (Of course, the Tories say that is their motive too but they struggle to convince.)

Part of Labour’s answer is the integration of social care with the NHS. Currently the two services rub along in disjointed fashion, with little coordination and no consistency. As a result, the health service ends up picking up the tab for failings in social care services. Hospitals fill up with elderly patients suffering from chronic, long-term conditions, which is neither a good way to look after people nor an efficient use of finite resources. The theory is that integrating the two services could save billions over time by spending smaller sums on the kinds of early interventions that limit hospital admissions and help elderly patients lead healthier, happier lives.

This in turn is part of a more profound transition to what Burnham and Kendall call “whole person care" – re-orienting treatment and NHS institutions to consider the conditions that lead to ill health in the first place. It means concentrating on interventions that protect society (considering, for example, diet, exercise, stress); empowering and encouraging people to look after their own health. (Advocates of this approach often cite diabetes as a classic case of something that will cost the NHS a whole lot more if dealt with only once it is manifest than if investment were put into helping people change their lifestyles.)

Ed Miliband has today announced the creation of a commission to examine how it might be done. Part of the remit is to achieve the integration with a minimum of disruption to existing structures (i.e. not necessitating another great upheaval) and without a great up-front spending commitment. That won't be easy.

A commission to look at ways to implement an idea may not sound like a bold stride towards manifesto clarity but in the context of Labour’s softly-softly approach to policy it is genuine progress. It is a step towards a broader expression of budget priorities – which areas or departments will be favoured and which will suffer if Labour finds itself governing in austerity. The question of when and how to signal those priorities, or indeed whether it needs to be done at all, is one of the thorniest debates that goes on in the shadow cabinet. Ed Balls is said to be reluctant to permit any announcement that might contain the seeds of a fiscal obligation for the future. Shadow ministers who want to develop their portfolios complain that without some fiscal guidelines they can’t credibly develop plans for government. That leaves the front bench stuck in the realm of stating warm but vague intentions or just whingeing about coalition policy.

For people who have followed Labour’s cautious steps towards an NHS policy, Miliband’s announcement today is hardly new. Burnham made a speech on ‘whole person care’ in January. Kendall has been delicately but consistently making the case that Labour cannot sit back and defend the pre-2010 status quo since joining the front bench. Finally, it seems, they have persuaded Miliband to put his personal authority behind their approach. (It is a rule of Westminster politics that no-one believes something will actually happen until they hear it from the leader’s mouth.)

There is a catch. The “whole person care” idea makes sense fiscally over the long term as a way to save money. It makes sense clinically as a way to achieve better outcomes and modernise the way the health service treats patients. It makes sense as political strategy, addressing the concerns of people who fear they will be abandoned in retirement or worry about how they will care for elderly patients. But it scatters a bunch of tactical land mines in the form of hospital closures.

Pretty much any time politicians look hard at NHS reforms they come to the view that the classic jack-of-all-trades district general hospital is a tired and inefficient model for delivering effective care to communities. But whenever anyone tries to rationalise the system and change the structures, they discover it means wards or whole hospitals closing, leading to demonstrations, petitions, town hall meetings and, usually, political retreat.

“Whole person care” is no exception. It implies a re-allocation of resources to treat people at home and a strategy to encourage patients with chronic conditions to get more treatment at clinics and GP surgeries. It recognises what consultants and healthcare experts have been privately complaining about for years: that many hospitals wards are effectively emergency housing for geriatric patients, which is bad for them and a poor use of resources. But a better use of resources might mean, gulp, fewer wards.

Given his predilection for caution on the topic of public sector reform, Ed Miliband went pretty far today in terms of recognising the existence of an NHS budget challenge. He said:

“The NHS will always be a priority for expenditure under a Labour government, but we must make every pound we spend go further at a time when our NHS faces the risk of being overwhelmed by a crisis in funding because of care needs by the end of this decade.

"When the NHS was in crisis in the 1990s, Labour was able to save it by combining reform with unprecedented increases in funding. We know that budgets will be tighter under the next Labour government. But even in these tough times we want the NHS to provide a better service for patients.

"The changes we propose will ensure that – but they do something else too. They will save billions of pounds which can be better spent elsewhere in the NHS."

Buried in that loose expression of good intent is small print so minuscule it is invisible to the naked eye. It says that that a Labour government could end up closing hospitals too.  

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham with Ed Miliband in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.