There is always something slightly uncomfortable about the opposition benefiting politically from crises under the governing party. What the Labour party is describing as an “A&E crisis” is an example of this. While shadow health secretary Andy Burnham’s team has long been using the word “crisis” about our health service under the coalition, and justifiably so, it is difficult for Labour not to look ever-so-slightly gleeful about the election year kicking off with the revelation that 14 hospitals have declared “major incidents” as they come under increasing pressure. The party’s strength on the NHS will undeniably be boosted by the current problems our hospitals are facing after nearly five years of the coalition being in charge of our public services.
Burnham put an Urgent Question to the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, this afternoon in the House of Commons, calling on him to make a statement on the crisis in hospital emergency departments. With figures from the last quarter revealing the worst performance of A&E units in a decade, and the government’s missed four-hour waiting time target, it was the correct move. It was crucial for Hunt to answer for his Department, and to give his analysis of why there is such increased pressure on our health service.
And indeed, as George wrote in his PMQs review, the charge – used by both Hunt against Burnham and the Prime Minister against Ed Miliband – that Labour is using the NHS as a “political football” is the last resort for a government that knows it’s in the wrong. However, from watching Burnham’s Urgent Question play out, I would argue that the opposition has to be particularly careful not to fall into the trap of seeming only to care about the NHS as a way to bash the Tories.
The rather damning quote attributed to Miliband that he is apparently aiming to “weaponise” the NHS for political purposes is a bad look, and it doesn’t help when he sits on the front bench nodding and smiling, as he did today, when Burnham repeatedly asked, “Why is there unprecedented demand?” in our emergency departments. Labour is winning the argument, which may help it along the way to potentially winning the general election, but it must avoid the Tories’ desperate accusations of “political football” ever ringing true. If Hunt’s remark today that Burnham “chose to frighten the public, to scaremonger for party political purpose” ever manages to stick, then Labour will have lost its key opportunity to win the election – and, more importantly, to fix the NHS.