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6 January 2015updated 24 Jul 2021 7:15am

What does the Lib Dems’ NHS funding pledge mean for the general election?

£8bn by 2020.

By Anoosh Chakelian

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.

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   – 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: 

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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.