Hopes amongst NHS campaigners that the NHS Reinstatement Bill’s Second Reading on March 11th might see a stirring of support in Old/New Labour ranks were snuffed out by only 18 Labour MPs attending its debate. Would a subsequent invitation to a meeting with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell at the Commons last Wednesday prove similarly disappointing?
The late news that he could only attend the last 30 minutes of the 90-minute meeting wasn’t promising, nor was a Shadow Ministry PA’s casual revelation that the NHS was not a priority issue for the Party. Shadow Health Minister Heidi Alexander’s 30-minute slot before him, in which she continued to shy away from backing the NHS Reinstatement Bill, added to the simmering atmosphere.
Evidencing the split between the minority leadership and Alexander’s Old/New Labour rump McDonnell however confirmed the Corbynistas’ support for a fully nationalised NHS and for the Bill, albeit that it should contain the ”right” legislation (Correction: a close listen to the audio recording of the meeting I obtained on Friday confirms that McDonnell’s actual wording supported ‘legislation’, not the NHS Reinstatement Bill; and that his wording supported a commitment to a nationalised NHS but omitted a clear reference to this being ‘fully’). This was consonant with the Bill being effectively a statement of intent to re-nationalise the NHS but still having a way to go in its formulation to ensure it fully recaptures and insulates it from the privateers.
He explained Labour’s lack of a clear body of policies, including the NHS, as due to the leadership being engaged in lengthy open discussions on key issues, to be concluded over the next 18 months. He mooted the Party having a raft of oven-ready Bills for the 2020 Election with which to “hit the ground running”.
A Bristol campaigner’s riposte “We haven’t got the luxury of time. We need to halt privatisation now!” summed up campaigners’ frustration at Labour’s distance behind the curve on an urgent issue which they feel should have been central to its last Election manifesto and remains its best hook for future electoral success.
With the NHS’ chaotic and costly restructuring being rapidly progressed by its CEO Simon Stevens, a former exec at US health insurance giant United Health, and his henchpeople like US mega business consultants McKinsey, this sense of urgency and fear of the NHS being moved towards US-style health insurance-based funding seems well founded.
The campaign movement’s Cassandra Lucy Reynolds has consistently pointed to NHS privatisation’s long laid plans which support this fear, exemplified in early tracts by Oliver Letwin, the Tories’ policy director. The Tories may be “posh boys winging it”, as a former Cameron speechwriter told a relative of mine recently, and often incompetent. But in Letwin they have a veteran mapper of privatisation – he authored the 1988 pamphlet Britain’s Biggest Enterprise and the pocket guide Privatising The World also in 1988.
Letwin highlighted the measures privatisation involves – deregulation to provide access to privateers, contracting out of services, selling off of land and property assets – and intended ‘to work slowly towards a national insurance scheme…separate from the tax system’ which would use the private health insurance sector to fund our healthcare. Much of this has since been put in motion, indeed is well advanced.
So there was no Glastonbury mood amongst 999 Callers Steve Carne, Deborah Harrington, Bob Gill and Jo Land and their 40-odd fellow campaigners in the Commons cafeteria afterwards. For them Alexander’s fluffy responses to the threats facing the NHS confirmed their fears that the NHS isn’t safe in Old/New Labour’s hands.
McDonnell’s welcome of an NHS campaigners’ think-tank to assist the Labour leadership was considered a plus – NHS campaigners, with their mix of health professionals and wised-up internet-savvy grassrooters, are far better informed than Labour politicos and their advisers.
There had been tears as well as anger during the meeting, with two senior male campaigners, both NHS personnel, breaking down as they spoke movingly of deaths and child suicides caused by the cuts which campaigners see as being used to starve the NHS into the hands of the privateers.
“This is what it’s really about…” a choking Deborah Harrington said to camera as I filmed her departure from the seat of a democracy which she, like so many, see as now pervasively corrupted by the free marketeers.
The day again filled me with admiration for the campaigners whose David And Goliath story my documentary GROUNDSWELL is recording. If the NHS is eventually saved it will be largely down to small groups of extraordinarily dedicated citizens devoting large amounts of their personal lives to a cause daunting in its scale and complexity.
Though the NHS is recognised as the one issue with deep support across party and class divides there’s a sense of a developing groundswell of opposition to rampant privateers in general that is similarly ‘rainbow’. Even trad Tories are becoming disillusioned with how ‘money’ has taken over so much of our political and civil institutions and the landscape of our daily lives (see our Groundswell YouTube ‘Ex-Tory Speaks Out On Privatisation & The NHS’).
The ex-Tory is a member of my West London 38 Degrees group. Whilst 38D’s happy-clappyness might be cloying it does have the capacity to attract cross-party members. And its best campaigns like TTIP have been very effective.
“We’ll meet again…” McDonnell promised the campaigners. But there’ll be no sunny day if Old/New Labour continue to kettle the Corbyn leadership and prevent the Party yet again from shooting at the open goal offered by popular disenchantment with the free-market bandwagon, to which the recent revelations of Panama tax scams have added yet another new coat of paint.
In so doing they will bear responsibility not only for the loss of its greatest achievement but also for Labour’s demise as a credible bulwark against the depradations of the free marketeers.
After a long hiatus due to my Groundswell commitments my debt-apocalypse movie project The Crunch is now back on the road with actors’ interest and a revised screenplay which I’ve just completed. In it anti-austerity protesters massed out on the streets are demanding ‘Dump The Debt! Ditch The Rich!’ as the still unresolved global debt crisis comes to a head. Might fiction become fact?