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Why won’t Labour tell the truth about the NHS?

Keir Starmer’s answer on private healthcare left too much unsaid.

By Hannah Barnes

The highly questionable – if not downright false – claim that a Labour government would cost households an extra £2,000 in taxes has dominated the headlines today. And it’s right that the media probes where these claims come from so voters don’t believe untruths.

But I’ve found myself thinking a great deal about another question from last night’s leaders’ debate between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer: when both men were invited to answer with a “yes” or a “no” whether they would use private healthcare if they had a loved one in need of surgery who was stuck on a long waiting list. Yes, answered Sunak immediately. No, Starmer replied, similarly without hesitation. Asked again, he stuck with his answer: “No. I don’t use private health. I use the NHS. That’s where my wife works, in one of the big hospitals; as I said, it runs through my DNA.”

What is the purpose of this question and what does it tell us? Jon Ashworth, Labour’s shadow paymaster general, was also asked it during this morning’s media round. And he replied that he wouldn’t go private.

It cannot be a question about views on the NHS. Regardless of their politics, both the Prime Minister and Starmer care deeply about the NHS as an institution and admire and respect the people who work in it. Both have family members who have dedicated their lives to the health service. Neither man pretends that it is perfect or an institution worthy of worship.

It was, instead, a form of honesty test. And one that I feel Starmer failed. Anyone whose loved one needed life-saving surgery that could not be provided promptly for free would pay for it – if they had the means to do so. And no one would think any the poorer of them for it. Surely? Nor would sensible people interpret this in any way as trashing the NHS. It is a personal response. We would do anything for the people we love the most.

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Tom Baldwin, Starmer’s biographer and a former Labour Party adviser, has responded to incredulous journalists – like me – by reminding us that Starmer’s parents had NHS care until the end of their lives; his brother has twice had crucial surgery from the NHS. Yes. All reasons why he would respect the NHS a great deal and value it. But I’m unclear why this necessitates not paying for a loved one to be treated quickly if the NHS option wasn’t available – which was seemingly what Julie Etchingham’s question on ITV last night was about.

This was undoubtedly an easier question for Rishi Sunak to answer: everyone knows he is exceptionally wealthy, and the Conservatives traditionally view the private sector more favourably than Labour. But still.

It is, as Starmer pointed out to the millions of people watching last night’s debate, shameful that the Conservatives leave the NHS in a worse state than they found it 14 years ago. There is plenty that Labour will need to fix. But honesty matters in politics. When this question comes up again, as it almost certainly will, I hope whoever is answering is afforded the time to answer thoughtfully and with nuance. But also, that they will tell the whole truth.

[See also: The low-quality debate changed nothing]

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