An ICM poll came out yesterday. It revealed that, by a canter, the NHS is still the biggest concern British voters have. It is ranked top by 31% of voters – the next one down, jobs, prices and wages, is put as the chief priority by 17%. This should be a huge bonus for Labour given the NHS is the terrain they wish to run the election campaign on. Yet in the same poll, the Conservatives are ahead of Labour by four points.
Now, I’ll say right here that of course the two aren’t directly related. The four point Tory lead could be simple sampling error, for instance. But I do think that Labour are struggling to get their NHS message across to those it needs to get through to in order for them to win in May. This, I believe, is largely down to how Labour handled the health issue in 2012.
I recall being at Lib Dem spring conference in Gateshead. The local Labour party had organised a protest outside, one whose aim they clearly hadn’t decided was either about trying to get Lib Dem members to vote against the Health and Social Care Act – or was just a straightforward Lib Dem bashing exercise. I bring it up here because an image has stayed in my mind since, one that involved a young Labour activist, tears flowing from her eyes, yelling at the delegates in a heartfelt manner as they streamed in and out of the conference centre: “Please vote against this. This will be your only chance to save the NHS from destruction.”
This was pretty much the official Labour party line in 2012: that the Lansley reforms would destroy the NHS completely. That it was an attempt to privatise health care in Britain. Recall the “we have three months to save the NHS” headline attributed to Miliband. There are many voices on the Left trying to peddle this line still.
Problem is, it is now 2015 and the NHS quite clearly still exists. People can still turn up at a hospital A&E or a walk-in clinic and not be asked to produce a credit card or cash. The NHS remains, very obviously, free at the point of service. Now let’s be clear here: in 2012, Labour didn’t say that the Health and Social Care Act was unnecessary, or wasteful, or wouldn’t work as intended. Labour said it would effectively end the NHS in no uncertain terms.
Given the fact that people can clearly still see the NHS is operating, Labour’s over heavy line in 2012 (and which they have only modified ever so slightly since) makes everything they say on the NHS hard to buy. It’s like if someone told you not to go to a restaurant because if you did you would be stabbed in the chest with an axe the moment you walked through the door, and then when you did in fact eat there your only complaint was that the sauce could have used a bit more seasoning, you are likely to see the person who gave you the initial warning as hysterical, and someone very unlikely to be trusted by you ever again in terms of dining recommendations.
Now the line is that if the Tories get back into government again, they’ll privatise the NHS. Even if that was completely true, why would anyone believe what Labour has to say on health when they used the Tory privatisation line a few years ago and it turned out to be a falsehood? The really sad thing is that Labour might even have a point this time round: I’m nervous about what a Tory majority would do with the NHS. But by not keeping their powder dry, or at the very least coming up with a line in 2012 around the Health and Social Care Act that wasn’t bound to be proved wrong, the people Labour most need to have a listen to what they have to say on the NHS – the southern English middle-classes – will now turn a deaf ear. It could cost Labour the election in the end.