Jeremy Hunt delivers a speech during his visit with David Cameron to the Evelina London Children's Hospital on July 5, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories' attacks on the Welsh NHS have been exposed as baseless

A new report calmly and authoritatively shows that there is no significant difference in the performance of the four UK health systems.

When David Cameron was first elected Prime Minister he came to Wales and pledged "a new respect" agenda, promising collaboration and partnership between the devolved Welsh Government and his own. Yesterday, he returned to Wales to address the dwindling band of Welsh Tory faithful at their annual conference and spectacularly broke that promise.

In a vitriolic speech that demeans the office of Prime Minister, Cameron described Offa's Dyke, the divide between England and Wales, as "a border between life and death".  Even the Western Mail (the Welsh daily once described by Nye Bevan as a Tory rag and the Coalowner's Gazette) marvels at language from the Prime Minister that would be more suitable "to describe a criminal atrocity or a natural disaster".  They concluded that "politically motivated scaremongering is intolerable...the battle for votes in England can never justify terrifying a grandmother in Wales on the eve of a hip operation."

Sadly, this sordid intervention by Cameron is a new low in a long campaign the Conservative Party have been orchestrating to smear the NHS in Wales. Jeremy Hunt did exactly the same in his conference speech yesterday and even the Secretary of State for Wales, David Jones, has been using any opportunity to whip up fear by criticising key Welsh public services. The Conservative chairman Grant Shapps even went as far as openly stating that his party were going to target Wales as part of their general election strategy.

But what is most galling and insulting about this grubby strategy of targeting the Welsh NHS is that it is unquestionably based on a lie. On the very day this speech was being made, leading health academics at the Nuffield Trust, published a report based on over a decade’s worth of data, which made it crystal clear that "no one country is emerging as a consistent front-runner on health system performance". 

In the face of Cameron’s claims of a crumbling NHS in Wales, the weighty report 'The four health systems of the UK: How do they compare?' calmly and authoritatively showed beyond question that while each of the four nations have particular strengths and weaknesses, none of them is consistently ahead. In doing so, the report dealt a significant blow to the Tory election strategy. Perhaps most importantly, it also points to the fact that "there have been significant improvements in the performance of the four UK health systems over the past two decades". Showing the Conservative claims of a health service in meltdown are groundless. The Tories’ fox has not only been shot, but stuffed and mounted as well.

The report does say – as with everywhere in the UK – that there are challenges to be addressed. Over the period it looked at, waiting times for certain procedures, such as knee operations, rose as austerity set in. But the latest information shows that the standard waiting time for an orthopaedic procedure in Wales is 15 weeks – this is less than the Welsh Government’s target of 26 weeks. This is despite Wales managing budget cuts from UK government of £1.7bn and the fact we have the oldest population of the four home nations.

Nevertheless, extra investments have been made since the period covered by the report to tackle waiting times, including an extra £63m for orthopaedic surgery, and overall health spending per head still remains higher in Wales than England – showing the Welsh Government’s commitment to the NHS. All Welsh Labour politicians realise that we are custodians for the NHS, the most treasured institution in Wales. Ours is the country and party of its founder Nye Bevan - no one is more proud of our NHS than the Welsh people. That is why it has been so galling to see the Prime Minister and others make attacks on the NHS in Wales, which have been proven beyond doubt to be groundless.

Yet for all their negativity, the Conservatives have had little positive breakthrough with the public.  A recent YouGov poll showed just 14 per cent of Welsh people trust the Tories with the NHS, perhaps too many of us remember when they were last in charge in Wales, with crumbling hospitals and people being forced to wait two years for operations. Far from genuine concern for the health of ordinary people, this smear campaign is a smokescreen to distract from David Cameron’s handling of the NHS in England where he has caused an A&E crisis and wasted £3bn on a pointless reorganisation.

So my message to the Tory high command is as clear as the Nuffield Trust’s report - if you want to fight the next election on the health service, be our guest.  Nationally, Labour saved a crumbling health service in 1997 and in Wales we continue to run an excellent and improving service, true to the NHS’s core values of putting people before profit.

Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.

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Metro mayors can help Labour return to government

Labour champions in the new city regions can help their party at the national level too.

2017 will mark the inaugural elections of directly-elected metro mayors across England. In all cases, these mayor and cabinet combined authorities are situated in Labour heartlands, and as such Labour should look confidently at winning the whole slate.

Beyond the good press winning again will generate, these offices provide an avenue for Labour to showcase good governance, and imperatively, provide vocal opposition to the constraints of local government by Tory cuts.

The introduction of the Mayor of London in 2000 has provided a blueprint for how the media can provide a platform for media-friendly leadership. It has also demonstrated the ease that the office allows for attribution of successes to that individual and party – or misappropriated in context of Boris Bikes and to a lesser extent the London Olympics.

While without the same extent of the powers of the sui generis mayor of the capital, the prospect of additional metro-mayors provide an opportunity for replicating these successes while providing experience for Labour big-hitters to develop themselves in government. This opportunity hasn’t gone unnoticed, and after Sadiq Khan’s victory in London has shown that the role can grow beyond the limitations – perceived or otherwise - of the Corbyn shadow cabinet while strengthening team Labour’s credibility by actually being in power.

Shadow Health Secretary and former leadership candidate Andy Burnham’s announcement last week for Greater Manchester was the first big hitter to make his intention known. The rising star of Luciana Berger, another member of Labour’s health team, is known to be considering a run in the Liverpool City Region. Could we also see them joined by the juggernaut of Liam Byrne in the West Midlands, or next-generation Catherine McKinnell in the North East?

If we can get a pantheon of champions elected across these city regions, to what extent can this have an influence on national elections? These new metro areas represent around 11.5 million people, rising to over 20 million if you include Sadiq’s Greater London. While no doubt that is an impressive audience that our Labour pantheon are able to demonstrate leadership to, there are limitations. 80 of the 94 existing Westminster seats who are covered under the jurisdiction of the new metro-mayors are already Labour seats. While imperative to solidify our current base for any potential further electoral decline, in order to maximise the impact that this team can have on Labour’s resurgence there needs to be visibility beyond residents.

The impact of business is one example where such influence can be extended. Andy Burnham for example has outlined his case to make Greater Manchester the creative capital of the UK. According to the ONS about 150,000 people commute into Greater Manchester, which is two constituency’s worth of people that can be directly influenced by the Mayor of Greater Manchester.

Despite these calculations and similar ones that can be made in other city-regions, the real opportunity with selecting the right Labour candidates is the media impact these champion mayors can make on the national debate. This projects the influence from the relatively-safe Labour regions across the country. This is particularly important to press the blame of any tightening of belts in local fiscal policy on the national Tory government’s cuts. We need individuals who have characteristics of cabinet-level experience, inspiring leadership, high profile campaigning experience and tough talking opposition credentials to support the national party leadership put the Tory’s on the narrative back foot.

That is not to say there are not fine local council leaders and technocrats who’s experience and governance experience at vital to Labour producing local successes. But the media don’t really care who number two is, and these individuals are best serving the national agenda for the party if they support A-listers who can shine a bright spotlight on our successes and Tory mismanagement.

If Jeremy Corbyn and the party are able to topple the Conservatives come next election, then all the better that we have a diverse team playing their part both on the front bench and in the pantheon of metro-mayors. If despite our best efforts Jeremy’s leadership falls short, then we will have experienced leaders in waiting who have been able to afford some distance from the front-bench, untainted and able to take the party’s plan B forward.