On the NHS, Labour is pandering to fear. Photo: Flickr/Lydia
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Has Labour descended into the politics of fear over the NHS?

Ed Miliband's party is repeating the divisive mistakes in the history of Labour's internal debates over the NHS.

The Labour party finds it hard having heroes. As a movement that grew from the bottom of society, it has nearly always found a reason not to honour those who reach its top. Very few are spared the harshest of political judgment. Ramsay MacDonald was the original traitor, and since then the labour movement has been finding new pariahs at each and every election. Even those who happen to win three. But one light nearly always shines through the red mist; Aneurin Bevan.

The bright shining vision of the National Health Service is as acute today as it was in 1948 when the great reforming Attlee government began to heal a war-ravaged nation. Bevan, rightly, is seen as the most significant figure in the history of the NHS. His place in the pantheon of Labour greats is assured. That he was opposed, and indeed defeated, by a name that is but a passing reference in Labour's annals speaks volumes about those the party reveres over those it does not. But this figure, as Daniel Finkelstein recently noted, could hold the key to the very future of the NHS.

The bourgeois socialising and elite politicking associated with Gaitskell represented the very antithesis of Bevan. Where Bevan had created the NHS, Gaitskell introduced the first NHS charges to fund an American-led fight in distant Korea. Themes being replayed in the politics of today were first thrashed out by a Labour cabinet in 1951; namely whether the NHS could be sustained without the imposition of charges that Gaitskell first introduced. The debate now writ large is over the very future of the NHS.

The NHS is, according to the Kings Fund, facing "financial meltdown". And to what, from Labour, is the answer to this most fundamental question? Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, would clearly like to position himself as the latter-day Bevan, the keeper of the party of the NHS, of its conscience and soul - and whatever other mystical tones in which the party likes to drape itself. But on the key question facing the NHS, the party has been all but mute.

Candle-lit vigils, people's marches, nonagenarians deployed at party conference - Labour has descended into the politics of demagoguery over the NHS. Nostalgia, fear and politiking are driving policy. What is at stake for Labour is votes, not the secure future of the NHS. For the party has not articulated a policy that would quell the ills inflicted upon it by the coalition. Its flagship "Time to Care Fund" unravelled under the most basic scrutiny; not implemented until 2017, and only after the mansion tax, tobacco levy and tax avoidance measures are passed in a Budget when, with present polls, Labour cannot guarantee a majority.

But it is on the question of privatisation that the party is pandering to fear. Burnham will know better than many Labour's acceptance of the private sector into the NHS during the New Labour years. As part of reforms in the first years of the previous Labour government, bids for services were invited from the private sector. Labour very clearly made use of the private sector when it suited them, in particular in order to bring down waiting lists. As Finkelstein’s Times colleague David Aaronovitch highlighted, private sector involvement in the NHS rose from just under three per cent in 2006 to just over six per cent today. It is hardly a privatised Damascene conversion.

The Attlee government realised, even at the birth of the NHS, that it was a policy with a limited price tag. Since the NHS was founded, its spending has increased on average by four per cent a year in real terms. However, for the foreseeable future, the NHS budget is likely to remain flat in real terms or, at most, to increase in line with growth in the rest of the economy. It will require Gaitskell's discipline, not Bevan's vision.

Labour is absolutely right that the NHS must be at the centre of political debate between now and the election, for it is genuinely facing the biggest challenges than at any time in its history. But the battles being played out internally are all too similar. Gaitskell may have had the upper hand more often during the Labour party's 1950s civil war, but there was only going to be one winner in the Labour history stakes. Labour in the years ahead may conclude that it picked the wrong hero.

David Talbot is a political consultant and contributor to Labour Uncut

David Talbot is a political consultant

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The public like radical policies, but they aren't so keen on radical politicians

Around the world, support for genuinely revolutionary ideas is strong, but in the UK at least, there's less enthusiasm for the people promising them.

You’re probably a getting a little bored of the litany of talking head statistics: trust in elected officials, parliament, the justice system and even democracy itself has been falling steadily for years and is at record lows. Maybe you’ve seen that graph that shows how people born after 1980 are significantly less likely than those born in 1960 to think that living in a democracy is ‘essential’. You’ve possibly heard of the ‘Pasokification’ of the centre-left, so-named the collapse of the once dominant Greek social democratic party Pasok, a technique being aggressively pursued by other centre-left parties in Europe to great effect.    

And so, goes the logic, there is a great appetite for something different, something new. It’s true! The space into which Trump et al barged leaves plenty of room for others: Beppe Grillo in Italy, Spanish Podemos, Bernie Sanders, Jean Luc Melanchon, and many more to come.

In my new book Radicals I followed movements and ideas that in many cases make someone like Jeremy Corbyn seem positively pedestrian: people who want to dismantle the nation state entirely, use technology to live forever, go off grid. All these ideas are finding fertile ground with the frustrated, disillusioned, and idealistic. The challenges of coming down the line – forces of climate change, technological change, fiscal crunch, mass movements of people – will demand new types of political ideas. Radical, outsider thinking is back, and this does, in theory at least, offer a chink of light for Corbyn’s Labour.

Polling last week found pretty surprising levels of support for many of his ideas. A big tax on high earners, nationalising the railways, banning zero hours contracts and upping the minimum wage are all popular. Support for renewable energy is at an all-time high. According to a recent YouGov poll, Brits actually prefer socialism to capitalism, a sentiment most strongly held among younger people.

There are others ideas too, which Corbyn is probably less likely to go for. Stopping benefits entirely for people who refuse to accept an offer of employment is hugely popular, and in one recent poll over half of respondents would be happy with a total ban on all immigration for the next two years. Around half the public now consistently want marijuana legalised, a number that will surely swell as US states with licenced pot vendors start showing off their dazzling tax returns.

The BNP effect used to refer to the problem the far-right had with selling their ideas. Some of their policies were extremely popular with the public, until associated with the BNP. It seems as though the same problem is now afflicting the Labour brand. It’s not the radical ideas – there is now a genuine appetite for those who think differently – that’s the problem, it’s the person who’s tasked with delivering them, and not enough people think Corbyn can or should. The ideal politician for the UK today is quite possibly someone who is bold enough to have genuinely radical proposals and ideas, and yet appears extremely moderate, sensible and centrist in character and temperament. Perhaps some blend of Blair and Corbyn. Sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? But this is politics, 2017. Anything is possible.

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

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