Ukip's high command remains confused about the NHS

To outsource or not to outsource?

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As Ukip hoovers up increasing support, and a few MPs along the way, it is starting to face a certain level of scrutiny regarding its policies.

The party's lack of consistency on the NHS is a particularly sore subject, following the revelation around the time of last month's by-election of Nigel Farage's enthusiasm back in 2012 for an insurance-based system run by private companies. As his party is now openly attempting to pick up Labour voters, Farage's former thoughts on NHS funding are damaging. So much so that he had to hastily insist that he would keep the NHS free at the point of use, without handing control over to "faceless private-sector companies".

But it's clear confusion about its approach to the health service endures among Ukip's high command. Writing in a column in the Express, Ukip deputy chairman Neil Hamilton suggests he would like to see more NHS outsourcing. He refers to "hopeless public sector procurement practices" compared to the efficiency of running a business in the private sector, and decries the "bloated budget" of the NHS. He concludes:

Unfortunately every time a private sector company produces money-saving ideas Labour and trade union dinosaurs start shroud-waving about NHS privatisation. We need to fight back because NHS inefficiency costs lives. One of them might be yours.

This approach to running the NHS sounds entirely at odds with Farage's recent defensive insistence against outsourcing. He told LBC in September:

The government aren’t just privatising the National Health Service, the Labour government following up the coalition, are privatising, or shall I say outsourcing, virtually everything . . . I actually think the bits of our life that government departments control should actually be controlled and run properly by government departments and not outsourced. So I am against outsourcing, I think we need a massive rethink about the way we’ve outsourced the National Health Service and much, much of what the state used to be competent to do in this country.

What does Ukip's inconsistency on the NHS mean for the election? First, it's clear from the need for Ukip to clear up its policy that Labour is so far successfully making the NHS a key electoral battleground. It is also good news for Labour because enthusiasm from key Ukip figures for outsourcing can give its "Ukip is more Tory than the Tories" attack line credence.

As for the Tories, although it is difficult for them to make popular statements on the health service, it will help them to some extent to have a party to point towards as less trustworthy on health reforms than they are so often accused of being.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.