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23 May 2023

Labour wants to make health great again

But can Starmer convince the public that he can build “an NHS fit for the future”?

By Freddie Hayward

Starmer announced his third mission for government yesterday (22 May): an NHS fit for the future. The plans are ambitious. Labour hopes to go beyond simply restoring the NHS as a functioning service. It wants to raise life expectancy through better cancer treatment rates and reverse the growing rate of suicide. It wants to modernise the NHS, ensure that health is seen as a societal issue and harness technology such as AI and the NHS app.

“The thinking behind the mission is: what would we actually have wanted to achieve after five or ten years in government?” said one person involved in its formulation. They said the proposals drew on work from the Tony Blair Institute and the IPPR think tank.

That the name of the mission – “an NHS fit for the future” – isn’t particularly compelling might not matter when what they are offering is in such high demand. According to YouGov, more than half of people think the NHS will get worse over the next few years.

For that reason, I’m happy to take bets that the Conservatives will also go into the next election promising to fix the NHS (fair odds available on request). But Labour has the outsider advantage. It hasn’t presided over the mess the service is in. Unlike on the economy, it can point to its record in government with confidence. And the government can’t simply blame Covid because it’s receding in the public imagination.

Whatever you think about the abstract nature of the missions (“missions should be for government, not for campaign messaging,” one shadow minister grumbled to me recently), Starmer’s language has noticeably improved. His time running the Crown Prosecution Service means he spoke with conviction yesterday about reforming public institutions. That his wife and sister both work in the NHS gives him some credibility. “He is a public service reformer. That is the thing that drives him,” a Labour source reflected.

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Nonetheless, the party will be inundated with questions about funding over the next 18 months. Starmer didn’t announce any new money yesterday to pay for the proposals. One large unknown is how Labour would offer “fair pay” as part of its workforce plan to retain NHS staff without a sizeable funding settlement.

Perhaps an even bigger problem for Labour will be convincing a public sceptical of grand ambitions that its plans are realistic.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

[See also: Here’s how Keir Starmer can really end the NHS crisis]

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