Speaking at an ambulance depot in Essex last week, Sir Keir Starmer introduced Labour’s most detailed plans on NHS and health policy yet, as part of a series of keynote addresses intended to spotlight the party’s ‘missions’ which were announced back in February. Intended to form the backbone of the party’s next manifesto, the five missions are as follows:
• Secure the highest sustained growth in the G7
• Build an NHS fit for the future
• Make Britain’s streets safe
• Break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage
• Make Britain a clean energy superpower
In summary, Labour’s vision for the future of health policy is based on three fundamental shifts; a shift away from the hospital to community-based care, a shift towards innovative technologies and a shift towards prevention through a holistic view of public health which sees it as a cross-Government initiative. None of these ideas are particularly new – in fact, the basic principles of Labour’s plan have been generally well received by sector stakeholders.
There has been an emerging cross-party consensus going back to the Blair years; that principles such as prevention, early-intervention, a shift away from hospital-based care towards community services, efficient digitisation and a cross-Government approach to public health are not only best for patients but essential to the survival of the NHS.
Politicians from both sides of the House and across multiple administrations have all paid lip service to these principles. Sir Julian Hartley, Chief Executive of NHS Providers, the membership body for NHS trusts up and down the country, said that trust leaders ‘will agree with Labour’s goal to reduce waiting times. Trusts have made remarkable progress on the longest waits for planned operations given the recent challenges’. However, he added the caveat that ‘this goal will only be achieved if it’s underpinned by adequate funding for health and care workers as well as for infrastructure’.
The bulk of the press questions during the Q&A which followed the Labour leader’s speech focused on the issue of funding. Given Labour’s staunch commitment to ‘balancing the budget’ and ‘fiscal responsibility’, many journalists had questions about exactly how much money the party would give the NHS were it in government. Starmer avoided making any concrete commitments on funding; repeatedly stressing that Labour would not rely only on money to fix the NHS, but on reform and technology as well.
Critics may point out that this is a somewhat flawed argument; while reform and investment in technology are most definitely needed, these things will not come free of charge.
Nigel Edwards, Chief Executive of the influential health think tank Nuffield Trust, said that while Labour’s proposals on the NHS are ‘welcome and extremely ambitious… delivering them will require time, staff and more long-term funding than Labour have so far pledged’.
On a similar note, Chris Thomas, head of the Institute for Public Policy Research IPPR commission on health and prosperity, said that ‘Labour is right in its ambition to create a 21st century plan for a 21st century NHS. But there also needs to be a plan for investment alongside these bold reforms to help make such an aspirational target believable’.
Labour’s proposals are not final but rather intended as a blueprint for its next manifesto. Policy will be subject to debate amendment by the National Policy Forum, before being voted on during the annual party conference in September and finally by representatives at a ‘Clause V meeting’ ahead of a General Election.
Particular aspects of the party’s health policy, such as the use of the private sector to tackle NHS backlogs, will likely face internal opposition from the membership and some Labour MPs.
For regular updates on what is happening in UK politics and public affairs, sign up to our weekly Point of Order newsletter, going out every Friday morning.