Tuesday, 5 January 2016

In which Labour becomes the NHS Action Party

In the run up to last year's general election a bunch of self-important left-wing doctors set up a thing called the National Health Action Party:

We believe a political party is needed to defend the NHS and its values. The NHS is more than just a structure for the delivery of healthcare. It is also a social institution that reflects national solidarity, expresses the values of equity and universalism, and institutionalises the duty of government to care for all in society. The NHS marks out a space in society where the dictates of commerce and the market should be held in check. We are fighting now to ensure that it is patients not profits that are the driving force behind our NHS. We hope you will join us.

In truth, this party was simply a vehicle for activists within the NHS to defend the interests of people who work - and profit from - the NHS. They targeted a few high profile politicians (the prime minister, the health secretary and so forth) and garnered the grand total of 20,000 votes with over 7,000 of those going to the former MP for Wyre Forest (in that constituency). The party's top cheerleader, Clive Peedell got 600 or so votes in Witney.

The National Health Action Party is still out there banging the rocks together but its relevence - in so far as it ever had any - had paled. Indeed it seems at times that with Labour now only having a poll lead on the NHS, that party has shoved aside the 'NHS Producer Interest Party' as I prefer to call it. Others have noticed too:

To put it brutally, we often give the impression that we'd prefer it if everyone could just work in the public sector, and ideally for the NHS. When we talk about self-employed people it's often as if we believe they must have been forced into it. We pay scant attention to arguments around competitiveness, especially global competition, and even where the evidence of competition working well is all around us (have you seen how cheap broadband is these days?) we are reluctant to acknowledge it. For some “competition' itself is a dirty word.

This is where Labour has got to and it has everything to do with who owns and runs the Labour Party. We look at Jeremy Corbyn, laugh at his political antics, and assume that a different, moderate leader would make all the difference. We point at a bunch of impressive younger MPs saying that they might be leader - Jess Phillips, Stella Creasy, Michael Dugher, Mary Creagh - but fail to ask where the policy platform will come from, whether those putative leaders will recognise that basing your politics on producer interests, albeit public sector producer interests, repeats the mistakes that led to 1979 and the destruction of 1983?

Labour's problem isn't a lack of intelligent, capable centre-left MPs but rather that the Party's policy platform is controlled by public sector producer interests. Opposition to more open international trade in services, for example, derives not from any valid economic argument but from the fear that the public sector managers who control the Labour Party will have to justify their effectiveness in a competitive environment. At the same time Labour has no idea - not the slightest inkling - how the private sector operates, what it's actually like to work in this sector and why most workers reject the stifling dullness of public sector work in favour of riskier but, in the end, better rewarded private sector work.

Until the advent of Tony Blair's New Labour, Britain's mainstream left-wing party had always been the vehicle for producer interests primarily through the trade union movement (which, of course, founded the Labour Party). Hence state monopoly, protectionism, price intervention and a host of anti-competition regulations badged as "workers rights". Today, with the trade unions all but extinct in the private sector, the Party's battle is wholly about defending the interests of public sector workers. The idea that, through new technology, innovation and efficiency, we can deliver the same public service outcomes is as much anathema to today's Labour as they were to the old Luddite union-led party - the one that crippled our manufacturing base and destroyed those communities they now mythologise.

What New Labour did - and what the Party has now rejected - was to recognise that the British public are, first and foremost, consumers in a consumer society and that their preference is for access to those consumer goodies the hair-shirted hard left sees as the baubles of late capitalist decadence. By rejecting this commitment to making the consumer society fairer, Labour has turned its backs on the idea that economic growth can - and usually does - mean a better world for everyone. Especially where there is a party not tied to crony capitalists and rent-seekers able to ensure the milk and honey of that richer land flows to all who live there.

Today's Labour Party - underneath the shouty rhetoric about 'austerity', 'equality' and 'fairness' - is a party that rejects competition, choice, innovation and efficiency. A Party that places the interests of those who work in the public sector - not just the low paid cleaners, road sweepers and caterers but well-paid administrative staff, 'fat cat' NHS bosses and, of course, the miners of the modern Labour Party, doctors. The Party - just like Clive Peedell's National Health Action Party - isn't interested in challenging the way the NHS works but rather in coating the whole thing in the aspic of changelessness, in the deranged assumption that Bevan's back-of-an-envelope fix can't be improved upon. The Labour Party has become the NHS Action Party.


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