A man passes in front of the building Berlaymont at the EU headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How the EU is making NHS privatisation permanent

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership gives the coalition's health reforms international legal backing.

No doubt the launch of Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in June was cause for much celebration in Brussels. The European Parliament is in the process of enabling a historic shift in world economics with countless, far-reaching consequences.

A key part of the TTIP is 'harmonisation' between EU and US regulation, especially for regulation in the process of being formulated. In Britain, the coalition government’s Health and Social Care Act has been prepared in the same vein – to 'harmonise' the UK with the US health system.

This will open the floodgates for private healthcare providers that have made dizzying levels of profits from healthcare in the United States, while lobbying furiously against any attempts by President Obama to provide free care for people living in poverty. With the help of the Conservative government and soon the EU, these companies will soon be let loose, freed to do the same in Britain.

Linda Kaucher is a leading expert on trade agreements. She has written and spoken extensively on the topic, most recently in an article in Chartist. In it, she lays out a disturbing truth about what is going on behind the scenes in Brussels, arguing that while on the surface the EU is a bastion of protections and rights, its true agenda is far more tenebrous.

It is, she says, to "permanently fix corporate-driven neo-liberalism, within the EU and internationally, via trade agreements. Any reassertion of democracy within the EU structure or member states is prevented by legally binding international trade law." She also states that the agenda is "driven and effectively controlled by transnational corporations, especially transnational financial services corporations."

How does this affect the NHS? It’s painfully simple. The agreement will provide a legal heavy hand to the corporations seeking to grind down the health service. It will act as a Transatlantic bridge between the Health and Social Care Act in the UK, which forces the NHS to compete for contracts, and the private companies in the US eager to take it on for their own gain.

Kaucher says: "[The Health and Social Care Act] effectively enforces competitive tendering, and thus privatisation and liberalisation i.e. opening to transnational bidders - a shift to US-style profit-prioritised health provision."

The TTIP ensures that the Health and Social Care Act has influence beyond UK borders. It gives the act international legal backing and sets the whole shift to privatisation in stone because once it is made law, it will be irreversible. Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) laws, fundamentals of the agreement, allow corporations legal protection for their profits regardless of patient care performance, with the power to sue any public sector organisation or government that threatens their interest.

Once these ISDS tools are in place, lucrative contracts will be underwritten, even where a private provider is failing patients and the CCG wants a contract cancelled. In this case, the provider will be able to sue a CCG for future loss of earnings, thanks to the agreement, causing the loss of vast sums of taxpayer money on legal and administrative costs.

Even more worrying is that, once the TTIP is enacted, repealing the Health and Social Care Act in the UK will become almost impossible. As Kaucher explains: "Even if outcomes of the NHS changes are disastrous, ISDS will effectively disallow any attempts by any future UK government to reverse the changes."

'Harmonised' standards favour private companies over public sector providers and the coalition government, the standard bearer of big business, is tirelessly working away to deliver a privatised system to its sponsors. The government claims that in privatising the NHS it will be its 'liberator'. The term even made it into the title of Andrew Lansley’s now infamous report laying out the Conservatives’ plans for the NHS: Liberating the NHS.

This is just more euphemistic language masking sinister intentions. In a 2010 speech Dr Jacky Davis, co-founder of Keep Our NHS Public, said: "Liberating the NHS really means unprecedented cuts, job losses, deniable of accountability and privatisation.

"It means liberating the NHS budget to hand it over to the corporate sector; and among those companies waiting like vultures around a dying animal are the very same companies that spent a million dollars a day in the States lobbying against Obama’s healthcare reforms."

The public need to be aware of this landmark shift and the way it affects them. So why has nothing about the TTIP appeared in the British press and why is the work of the European Parliament and Commission carried out in such a murky, underhand way?

The public has the democratic right to contest the agreement, and fight for a health service that protects them. But how can they when MEPs do nothing to inform opinion or gather support back home? The NHS is in a very precarious position. It seems that soon, with the help of Brussels, its fate will be sealed.

Benedict Cooper is a freelance journalist who covers medical politics and the NHS. He tweets @Ben_JS_Cooper.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.