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

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.