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Would Labour cut the NHS? Miliband has already ruled it out

Contrary to Cameron's assertion at PMQs, Miliband said last month: "we will always be protecting the health service".

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham speaks at last year's Labour conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

At today's PMQs, David Cameron repeatedly claimed that Labour would "cut the NHS". This is largely based on the belief that Labour pledged to do so before the last election. In fact, in 2010, then health secretary Andy Burnham promised to protect NHS spending. The difference with the Tories was that the latter vowed to increase it (the irony, of course, is that in office they have cut it). Burnham helpfully clarified this in an interview with the NS in 2010. 

Why shouldn't NHS spending be ring-fenced?
The ring-fence is what we proposed at the election and, in many ways, it is what I'm still arguing for, which is protection in real terms. Before the election, Labour calculated that if you gave the NHS protection in real terms -- so frozen in inflation -- it would allow you, on the other hand, to give schools inflation in real terms and give police inflation in real terms. Those are the three key services. The health service does not exist in isolation. By taking a more balanced approach to public spending, you can protect the three key services.

So your argument is that ring-fencing it in isolation makes it nonsense?
They're not ring-fencing it. They're increasing it. They're doing two things: they're accelerating the reduction in public spending, which I wouldn't have done, and they are also going to increase the NHS within that. So they went through the whole election campaign boasting that they were going to spend more than me and they're still doing it. Cameron's been saying it every week in the Commons: "Oh, the shadow health secretary wants to spend less on health than us."

As for what Labour's stance will be in 2015, Miliband all but confirmed in an interview with the BBC last month that he would not cut the NHS. He told Nick Robinson: 

We're not going to be cutting the health service, I'm very clear about that. We will always be protecting the health service and will always make it a priority.

It's worth remembering that when Ed Balls announced his "zero-based" spending review (one that examines every item of spending), he signalled that health would be a candidate for a "pre-election spending commitment". 

Labour's decision to rule out cuts to the NHS, even at this early stage, is unsurprising. Polls show that it is the most popular spending area with voters and the above-average rate of inflation in the health service means it frequently requires real-terms rises just to stand still. With Cameron and Osborne making it clear that the Tories would continue to ring-fence the NHS after 2015, Labour has no intention of finding itself on the wrong side of this political divide.