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12 December 2022

Why is Wes Streeting challenging the BMA?

The shadow health secretary is trying to find a middle ground on the NHS.

By Rachel Wearmouth

“Labour vows war on health unions”. The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, tweeted yesterday that his interview on the Sunday Telegraph‘s front page had “not the headline I expected”.

The details of the story are somewhat more nuanced. Streeting is targeting the doctors’ union the British Medical Association (BMA) specifically, which he says rejects Labour’s plan to implement better standards and increased GP access for patients (Labour would also fund training for 7,500 new doctors).

Criticising what he calls a “something-for-nothing culture” in the health service, Streeting says a vote last month by GPs to cut surgeries’ core opening hours to 9am to 5pm made doctors “look like they’re living on a different planet”.

On the surface, it seems a strange fight to pick. But Labour is simultaneously setting out a more pro-union position, saying that Keir Starmer would negotiate with striking workers and be more generous than the current Tory government.

It’s not the only time in recent weeks that a Labour front-bencher has sought to find a middle ground between left and right. The shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, pledged to scrap charitable status for private schools and, at the same time, urged the competition watchdog to investigate those schools’ rising fees.

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Both are signs Labour is prepared to park its tanks on Rishi Sunak‘s lawn and feel confident enough to expand the party’s base beyond its natural supporters. Labour cannot afford to lose its lead on the economy by making a slew of big-ticket spending promises at the next election, so becoming the voice of reform is a vital component of a winning strategy.

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But Streeting is in a tricky position internally. Some of his fellow front-benchers are puzzled. His attack is ostensibly confined to doctors within the BMA, but some think it applies more broadly. Healthcare workers exhausted by post-pandemic demands are said to be furious about the “something-for-nothing” comments.

Separately, his call for private hospitals to give vacant beds to NHS patients in order to clear Covid backlogs is, to some, logical. It makes sense to point out that there is a “two-tier” system in which those who can afford private healthcare are seen first. But he will need to tread carefully: others think the use of private hospitals undermines the NHS.

The headline may not have represented a true intention to go to war with health unions. But larger trade unions such as Unison, which are key to supporting Keir Starmer’s leadership, may be eyeing the row with interest. And should Streeting ever wish to run for leader, he cannot afford for them to get caught in the crossfire.

[See also: Ed Davey: “Voters are not blaming Brexit”]

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