From start to finish of the election campaign, the state of the NHS was the number 1 concern influencing voting decisions, although it’s hard to see this reflected in the obsessive, selective, skewed reporting of the mainstream news media which attempted to view the whole campaign as one about Brexit and immigration.
The media connived with NHS Improvement, the regulator which submitted to government pressure to withhold more highly embarrassing figures on the dire state of the NHS after six years of frozen real terms budgets: financial figures giving a partial glimpse of the growing deficits of hospital trusts were delayed till after polling day.
Alarming information leaked through the Health Service Journal detailing pressure on NHS managers to draw up “savage” plans for spending cuts and closures, restricting funding and reducing availability for treatments such as IVF or elective treatment for a range of non-life threatening conditions only surfaced in the mainstream media in the final few days of the campaign.
Figures showing a TENFOLD increase in numbers of patients waiting over 4 hours for treatment in A&E, record levels of bed occupancy in cash-strapped hospitals and other aspects of the crisis were kept out of the headlines. Labour could also have made much better use of this information, especially in the areas where the cash-saving plans are the most extreme and where pressures have already caused chaos last winter.
Despite the limited diet of information, according to Sky Data, 23% of respondents in their poll put the NHS as the main concern, followed by the economy (20%) immigration (a long way behind at 15%) security & terrorism (14% and Britain’s relationship with the EU (14%). It’s fair to assume that many older voters would also have been concerned by the Tory plans to subject home care to charges that could force families to sell their homes to pay soaring costs: but the impact of the social care proposals was also inadequately explained to a section of voters that remain predominantly loyal to a Tory party that treats them and their needs with utter contempt.
The strength of Labour’s campaign was Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-hitting election manifesto, offering a clear and radical alternative. For the first time since the 1990s it put England’s NHS centre stage, with commitments to increase funding, repeal the costly and chaotic Health & Social Care Act, which aimed to open up an ever-widening range of NHS services to the private sector, and halt and review the 44 hugely controversial Sustainability & Transformation Plans (STPs), which in many areas set out proposals for hospital closures, wholesale bed cuts, and “new models of care” for which there is no evidence and inadequate funding.
Labour’s message, culminating in the warning that there were just ‘24 hours to save the NHS’ no doubt played a key role in mobilising the new surge of support that gave Labour the biggest swing in its favour since 1945, and the biggest share of the vote since Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997.
The young people and activists who responded to this will be watching closely to see whether the Party sustains this commitment to the NHS and to public services – but should also be watching what happens in the areas where Labour was unable to unseat Tory candidates.
This is where the interesting times come in: there has seldom been a time when local elected politicians could be subjected to sustained pressure on the level that is now a possibility in every area where the quality or safety of services are at risk, or where local access is threatened by cuts and closures.
May’s failure to secure a majority, and hastily cobbled-together deal with the creationist, homophobic reactionaries of the DUP have created the widespread assumption that another election will be called well before the theoretical five year term is up.
This means that every MP, Tory and Labour alike, knows that any collusion with cutbacks, closures, privatisation or any controversial measures in local health care could face swift retribution from a hostile electorate that sees no good reason why their local health care should be sacrificed on the bonfire of self-imposed austerity.
Corbyn’s alternative approach, challenging the need for austerity cuts, and focused on defending public services and rejecting privatisation has helped create the basis for a new vigilance and critical approach not just to Tory MPs, but also to Labour and Tory councils many of which have shamelessly collaborated with the development of secretive STP plans and undemocratic plans for “devolution” that give local communities even less influence over services and accountability than ever.
In the run-up to the election, Health Campaigns Together, the initiative that seeks to link up trade unions, campaigners and political activists in common effort to defend local services (and which called the huge March 4 #ourNHS demonstration through London, with a reported 200,000 or more protestors from throughout England) has supported an innovative NHS Roadshow.
Uniting around the simple #voteNHS slogan and using social media to help mobilise support, the NHS Roadshow drew the eager participation of hundreds of junior doctors and health professionals to stage local events, or supply speakers and publicity resources in support of local campaigners.
Health Campaigns Together published an 8-page tabloid Election Special filled with hard hitting facts, figures and evidence to bang home the brutal impact of seven years of Tory rule and the need to #vote NHS: 20,000 were purchased for distribution by campaigners all over England. Many more resources and more information are available for download from the website.
The time is ripe for action now the election is over, as NHS managers begin to reveal the cutbacks they have been hatching up in secret, and a new layer of activists has discovered how effective political action can be. MPs must be hunted down in their surgeries and local appearances and put on the spot, with demands they actively back campaigners resisting cuts and make clear to Theresa May and ministers that they are willing to take this fight into the Commons.
To give an idea of the kind of pressure that can be brought to bear, it’s worth noting that a Devon Tory MP recently vowed to chain himself to the railings of his local hospital and quit his party if its A&E department is closed down. Torridge and West Devon MP Geoffrey Cox made the statement during a hustings event: we need every MP in areas where services are at risk to be put under similar pressure. Bear in mind in Canterbury the Tory had an 18.3% majority until June 8 booted him out.
We must condemn all our elected politicians to live in interesting times, building campaigns strong enough to pose a threat that if things become too interesting it could mean they lose their precious seats.
Here’s a task on which Labour’s new activists can work productively with health unions, existing local campaigns, the wider trade union movement and community organisations: we must think wider and bigger than ever if we are to defend our NHS against the unprecedented threat of another five years of austerity cuts.
CLPs are urged to affiliate to Health Campaigns Together and join the mobilisations planned at local hospitals across the country on July 5 to celebrate the 69th birthday of the NHS. Details at www.healthcampaignstogether.com
Co-ordinator, Health Campaigns Together