The Lib Dems and Tories have similar plans for the NHS. Photo: Getty
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What does the Lib Dems' NHS funding pledge mean for the general election?

£8bn by 2020.

As Labour hammers its opponents on the NHS, and the government attempts to play down the drastic effect of pressures on emergency departments, the Lib Dems enter the electoral fray with their funding promise for the health service: £8bn extra in real terms a year by 2020.

It is a direct response to NHS England and other health bodies' warning that health spending will need to increase by £8bn annually as part of a five-year plan: the Five Year Forward View published by the chief executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens.

This is a clever move by the Lib Dems, as it positions them as the only party directly promising what the NHS claims it needs to carry on. On top of this, the Lib Dems appear to be the only party promising to expand the health service's horizons and focus, with their proposals for mental health to be approached with the same gravity as physical health is treated. Its "red line" manifesto pledge is to equalise waiting times and implement funding especially for mental healthcare.

However, where Nick Clegg falls down is in how he will pay for this proposed increase in health spending. Here are the Lib Dems' plans:

   - We will baseline into the budget of the NHS, the additional £2bn
   that the Liberal Democrats successfully secured in the Autumn Statement for
   2015/16.

   - In addition to this funding, as we set out at our autumn
   conference, we will invest a further £1bn in real terms in 2016/17, which
   will then also be baselined. This will be paid for by capping pensions tax
   relief for the very wealthiest (saving £500m); aligning dividend tax with
   income tax for those earning over £150,000 (saving £400m); and scrapping
   the Conservative shares for rights scheme (saving £100m).

   - Once we have finished the job of tackling the deficit in 2017/18,
   we will increase health spending in line with growth in the economy.

These are hardly new, positive measures for raising funds, and the idea of scrapping a Tory scheme doesn't quite wash, considering the likelihood of the party going back into coalition with the Conservatives. It also opens the Lib Dems up for criticism from Labour, which is ever vigilant in its condemnation of other parties' plans to fund the NHS. The shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, responded to Nick Clegg's plans with the same criticism he levelled at the Tories: 

Nick Clegg has copied the Tories at reannouncing money from within the NHS. Labour's fully funded plan will invest an extra £2.5bn each year in the NHS to recruit a new workforce, including 20,000 more nurses and 8,000 GPs.

You can’t trust a word the Lib Dems say and more empty promises from Nick Clegg are the last thing the NHS needs. After backing David Cameron’s NHS reorganisation and privatisation plans to the hilt, the public will not believe a word of this unfunded policy.

And indeed, the Lib Dems' plan is more similar to that of the Tories than of Labour, in spite of Labour planning to use an originally Lib Dem policy – the mansion tax – to boost the health budget. This is another example of why another Conservative/Lib Dem coalition could be more workable than if the Lib Dems come to having to work with Labour. It is also useful for Labour, which can gain political capital from lumping the Lib Dems in with the Tories on their attitude to the NHS.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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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.