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17 October 2014

Miliband sharpens NHS dividing line with one-week cancer test guarantee

Pledge will be funded through £750m raised by new windfall levy on tobacco firms. 

By George Eaton

There is no policy area on which Labour enjoys a larger lead than the NHS (12 points according to the most recent YouGov poll). If the party can ensure that health is one of the defining issues of the election campaign then it will benefit at the expense of the Conservatives, who were this week revealed to regard their reorganisation of the service as their biggest mistake in government. 

Ed Miliband’s conference speech, in which he pledged to spend £2.5bn more a year on the NHS (funded by a mansion tax, a windfall levy on tobacco firms and a crackdown on tax avoidance), was the first part of Labour’s plan to create a clear dividing line with the Tories. Tomorrow, Miliband will begin setting out how this money will be spent by pledging to ensure that patients in England wait no longer than one week for cancer tests and results by 2020.

The guarantee, made possible by £750m of new investment over five years, funded by the tobacco levy, is aimed at allowing patients to begin treatment early, saving the NHS hundreds of millions a year in costs incurred due to late diagnosis. Miliband will declare his ambition for the health service to have the best cancer survival rates in Europe, something which could save up to 10,000 lives a year. Since May 2010, the number waiting for more than six weeks for key tests used to diagnose cancer has risen from 1,900 to 10,600. Labour described the plan as a first step towards achieving one week access for all urgent diagnostics by 2025. 

In an interview with tomorrow’s Times, Miliband says: 

Labour has different values on the NHS than this government. We believe in collaboration rather than free-market competition, in prevention not picking up the pieces, and accountability rather than undermining patients’ rights and guarantees.

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Labour has different priorities from this government. We would raise taxes on the most expensive homes worth over £2m  in our country, hedge funds which avoid paying their fair share, and the tobacco firms whose products cause so much ill-health and suffering. This money will help pay for the investments we will make with our NHS Time to Care Fund.

And, unlike this government, Labour has a plan for the NHS so that it can meet the challenges of the 21st century. We have already said we will guarantee GP appointments within 48 hours. And we have already shown how our Time to Care Fund will ensure the NHS has 20,000 more nurses, 8,000 GPs, 5,000 home care workers and 3,000 midwives so they have the time to care for you. 

Some have dismissed Labour’s focus on the NHS as part of a “core vote” strategy, but party sources point to polls such as this week’s ICM survey, which showed the public rate health as the most important issue, as evidence that there is a large audience for their proposals. One strategist told me: “We’re going to come back to it again and again and again for policy and political reasons.” Andy Burnham will make a speech in a few weeks’ time setting out further details of Labour’s ten-year NHS plan. 

There is an obvious political logic to funding the cancer guarantee through the tobacco levy, modelled on one introduced by Barack Obama in 2009. A Labour aide told me that it was time for “those who have contributed so much to the ill health of our nation to contribute to the health of our nation”. The party can also draw attention to the long-standing links between Conservative election campaign manager Lynton Crosby’s lobbying firm and the tobacco industry. Of the windfall tax, one aide said: “I don’t think that’s a choice the Tories are either willing or able to make”.