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31 March 2014

NHS funding is a taboo topic for all parties

The Tories blew their chance to be trusted on health and Labour doesn't want to talk about where the money will come from.

By Rafael Behr

It is hard to think of a policy that Labour is less likely to adopt for its 2015 manifesto than the flat rate £10-per-month “membership fee” for the NHS proposed by Lord Warner, a Blair-era health minister now sitting in the Lords. Jamie Reed MP, shadow health minister has said “this is not something Labour would ever consider.” He might have added re-introduction of small pox as a health policy  closer to Ed Miliband’s preferred general election offer.

When Labour has a vast lead over the Tories as the party to be trusted with the health service, anything that sounds as if it undermines the founding principle of universal access free at the point of use is out of the question. The problem is that Labour has signed up to tight spending constraint if it forms a government and under those circumstances NHS funding is certain to become a volatile issue. People are living longer, suffering from chronic conditions that are expensive to treat – especially if they result in prolonged hospital stays – and costs in medicine tend to rise faster than inflation. Even without the ongoing fiscal crunch, this would be an issue of existential urgency for the system as it is currently configured.

MPs in all parties know this but it has become hard to say so aloud for fear of facing the follow-up question – what would you do about it? In theory, health spending this parliament has been “ring-fenced” but it doesn’t feel that way in the context of local authority cuts, which have severe consequences for social care, and “efficiency savings” that amount to real terms cuts when imposed in a climate of rising costs. GPs say privately that a growing part of what they do amounts to managing patient expectations downward and rationing.

This model of service erosion is no-one’s preferred policy but it is the inevitable consequence of persistent failure of political courage on all sides. The Tories had their moment to bring public opinion with them in a conversation about reform and they blew it with a vast restructuring that alienated pretty much everyone apart from private healthcare providers. The Lib Dems are desperate to scrub away as much trace of complicity with the Tories’ mangled reforms as they can before polling day, although Nick Clegg was a prominent co-mangler.

Labour, meanwhile, does have a plan to transform the provision of health services – the “whole person care” idea developed by Andy Burnham. This puts the emphasis on public health and investment in prevention to save costs down the line. It also envisages the merger of health and social care.

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There are obstacles. First, even if the numbers can be made to add up over the long-term, it looks like a hefty up-front expense and yet another epic re-organisation to boot. Second, Ed Miliband’s office is deeply suspicious of Burnham, believing him to be building a support base in the party machine and manoeuvring into a position to be ready for a leadership contest in the event that Labour loses the next election. With an eye on those ambitions, neither Miliband nor Ed Balls seems in a massive hurry to give the shadow Health Secretary the kind of boost that would come from the adoption of his health plans as a flagship reform proposal going into the general election.

Finally, there is a feeling among some Labour MPs and activists that owning up to the imminent cost crunch in the health service and offering a complicated reform agenda to address it just confuses the message, when all the voters need to know between now and May 2015 is that “you can’t trust the Tories with the NHS.” This school of opposition would gladly build an entire campaign around the anti-Conservative message played on a loop alongside pictures of David Cameron and George Obsorne looking smug interspersed with reminders of their “tax cut for millionaires.”

The reality is that Labour expected problems with the NHS to be more extreme and more salient in political debate than they have proved to be so far. (That isn’t meant as a denial of the severity of the problem, only as an observation that they haven’t blasted other matters off the front pages.) It is an issue where the opposition has a huge potential advantage but only if voters think it is a matter of such urgency as to trump other questions when weighing up who to vote for – the economy; immigration; crime; education etc. Labour’s dilemma is that the obvious way to make more political noise around the health service is to talk about the funding crisis but doing so invites scrutiny of the opposition’s proposed solution. And that is a conversation the party is not yet ready to have.