Richard Sloggett: Is there any point in engaging Labour on health?
Labour’s ability to clearly scrutinise Tory management of the NHS is a major opportunity for Jeremy Corbyn’s party
With the arrival of Corbynmania and a sense of doom and gloom among Blairites that we are entering a period of one-party Conservative rule there is a temptation to misread what this means for potential engagement with the Opposition.
Whilst the Westminster Village have thoroughly and openly enjoyed watching the new shadow cabinet crank slowly into gear with open splits and rifts on what the party should do about everything from Trident to the fiscal charter to welfare reform there is a temptation to sit on the side and wait for things to return to ‘normal’ (whatever that means).
However the signs are very much that Corbyn and his team are here to stay, and whilst them forming the next government is a long way off they are still capable of posing the new Tory only administration significant headaches – a quick analysis of the ditched Saudi Arabia prisons deal shows this.
This is particularly the case on health, where Labour continues to hold a lead over the Government as the party most trusted with the NHS. As we enter both a spending review and winter period where further cash calls for the NHS are growing louder, Labour’s ability to clearly scrutinise Tory management of the NHS is a major opportunity for the party to gain traction with voters.
Labour failed to use its lead on health during the general election to deliver any political advantage. Andy Burnham’s ability to make the case that the NHS was not safe in Tory hands was under-mined by his association with the scandal at Mid Staffs and Labour’s overall confused economic narrative meant the public were unsure of what Labour would do differently on the NHS, particularly in relation to spending.
Labour in many ways can start again under a new shadow health secretary, Heidi Alexander, who may have more room for manoeuvre. Corbyn and John McDonnell are not wedded to the Government’s fiscal charter and indeed may well advocate higher spending on public services such as the NHS over the course of the Parliament.
Such a move would provide a real difference between the parties and give Labour a platform to argue for higher investment in the NHS, whether in relation to staff, pay, new services or a mixture of all three.
Such a move could also put the Tories genuinely on the back foot in areas of the NHS that are coming under increased scrutiny around sustainability, such as A&E and the costs of certain medicines, technologies and devices, including those on the Cancer Drugs Fund list, where rationing is set to continue.
In these cases Labour may well be able to make a coherent argument about higher NHS spending, funded by higher taxes, that the Tories will struggle to match without breaking their own self-imposed fiscal rules and election promises.
Whilst Labour may not be about to become the next government, it will still have an important role in the coming months in holding this one too account. It may be able to do so more effectively than people think.