A recent Green Party leaflet seeks to draw a distinction between the Green Party and Labour on the future of the NHS, by quoting a line attributed to Andy Burnham’s office to the effect that there would always be a role from the private sector in delivering world-class healthcare in the NHS.
The implication, presumably, is to portray Labour as a party of privatisation while the Greens remain committed to a publicly-provided NHS.
It’s spin, and moreover spin that is revealing of the Green Party’s political methods.
The quote, which in fact dates from much earlier than this June, actually comes from a briefing note from 2012 on the Health and Social Care Bill, then passing through Parliament. The full document can be found on the Socialist Health Association’s website but it’s worth quoting the reference to private sector provision in full:
Labour and the private sector
- Labour believes the private sector has a role to play in delivering world-class care to patients.
- In Government, we used private sector capacity to bring down NHS waiting lists to their lowest ever level. We introduced the Independent Sector Treatment Centre (ISTC) initiative to help reduce waiting times for treatment at busy NHS hospitals while increasing patient choice, by letting private companies carry out planned, straightforward procedures such as hip replacements and cataract operations.
- However, when our capacity needs were met we reduced the use of the private sector – for example in 2007 Alan Johnson announced that there wouldn’t be a third wave of ISTCs.
- We are clear that there is a difference between using private providers to support the work of the NHS and privatising the NHS.
- Labour introduced the NHS constitution – reaffirming rights to NHS services, free of charges and with equal access for all.
- In 2009, Andy Burnham announced that the NHS would be the ‘preferred provider’ of choice when it comes to delivering services. This meant that NHS trusts would be given the opportunity to improve first, before tenders for services from the private sector would be considered.
In other words, it’s part of a much more nuanced argument about how the private sector might take on some functions in delivering NHS care. It is a world away from the full-scale privatisation that is now being pursued by the Coalition, having legislated away the Secretary of State’s duty to provide healthcare. And the implication in the leaflet that Labour is supporting de facto privatisation – in contrast to Caroline Lucas’ opposition to privatisation – is, to put it at its mildest, deeply disingenuous. Is Lucas actually saying that Greens are opposed to any private sector involvement in the NHS? It seems unlikely – there has always been some work carried out in the private sector, and by the voluntary sector too. It shows that Greens are more interested in grandstanding than in detailed policy formulation; but then I suppose that is the luxury of knowing you won’t have to make tough decisions in Government.
I think the approach in this advertisement points to an important aspect of the Green Party’s political positioning – that it appears to be far more interested in attacking Labour than the Tories. Far from being a principled party of the left engaged in a quest to “do politics differently” its focus appears to be on undermining Labour, even on issues where there is little to choose between the two (or on issues like rented housing where the Green Party has simply and blatantly appropriated Labour policy). Why do they not turn their fire on the Tories with anything like the same zeal?
Here in Brighton and Hove, the answer was provided in a short and tart tweet from a Labour activist: Labour is fighting to save the NHS, Caroline Lucas is fighting to save her seat.
More generally, the Greens know they cannot form a Government; even if Lucas is re-elected her single Parliamentary vote will make little difference. But, eleven years after the Iraq war, so much of the Green political project appears to be, quite simply, about not being Labour; about attacking Labour. It’s a self-indulgent, inward-looking and ultimately frivolous political method.
And it’s a reminder that, at heart, the battle in the Brighton Pavilion constituency is between an MP who can talk a good talk on BBC Question Time and one who can make a real difference in Government. And there are no prizes for guessing which approach will save the NHS.