A long-term consensus on social care would be an achievement – not a betrayal, argues Caroline Flint
Labour and the National Health Service go together like bread and jam. It is part of our identity and a great illustration of our values.
After all, Labour founded the NHS, rooted its principles in the heart of our political system, and is responsible for the greatest period of modernisation and investment between 1997 and 2010.
Labour is rightfully proud of our role in creating a valued British institution and a great social advance.
We are right to hold the government to account over the NHS, as I and other Labour colleagues did last month over their complacency about winter pressures on the NHS. And we are right to worry that Tory governments leave the NHS in considerably poorer health than Labour would – despite their protests to the contrary.
But whatever government was in power, there would be big questions concerning the enormous long-term investment required for social care that remain unresolved.
In a perfect world, we would enjoy Labour governments for the rest of our lives. Over time, more resources and long-term solutions would be put in place.
But if that is unlikely, then we need to ask how we find those long-term solutions – a new consensus – which binds successive governments; especially about funding social care. Achieving this would help to rebuild trust in our political system.
This poses a challenge to all parties and to Labour as well. I would never suggest we should stop defending the NHS and holding the Tories to account, where they fail. We should and we will.
So far, Labour has been successful in tying other parties into the NHS’ basic principles.
Only fringe voices today argue to privatise the NHS. When such arguments surface, Labour quickly counters with the following riposte: Britain’s publicly funded NHS is one of the best health systems in the world; employs 1.5 million people across the United Kingdom; treats two million people every day; is worth every penny of the £138bn it receives; and more than 85 per cent of patients rate their care highly.
That is not a description of a service on its last legs. Yet when I suggested, in a recent radio appearance, that in debate about the NHS politicians over-use ‘crisis’ and ‘on its knees’, I was besieged with comments on social media accusing me of being a ‘Red Tory’ – and worse.
It is easy to see why Labour politicians do this. The NHS was central to our election campaigns in 2010 and 2015, and remains our preferred campaign issue today.
On polling day in 2015, Labour activists distributed leaflets saying there were ‘24 hours to save the NHS’, only to wake up the next day to find the public did not agree (and the NHS was still there). Our love of the NHS alone could not save Labour from defeat.
Shortly after, a radiographer from Yorkshire told me of her depression returning to work on 8 May 2015, to find that most of her colleagues had voted Tory, not Labour.
Those NHS workers clearly did not believe that their vote was a life or death decision for the NHS. Or if they did, what must they have thought of our wider economic policy?
We should learn that to over-hype the risk, to use apocalyptic language to create a party divide, can backfire. The public become desensitised to it and switch off.
I believe we lose nothing by trying to broaden support for the NHS and social care by searching for areas of agreement. A lasting consensus.
A year ago, myself, Norman Lamb and Liz Kendall secured a debate calling for an independent commission on social care. Last month, I co-signed a cross party open letter to the prime minister calling for an NHS and care convention. In recent weeks, select committee chairs Clive Betts, Meg Hillier and Sarah Wollaston have written to Theresa May urging a new political consensus on health and social care funding; an approach supported by the Local Government Association, the Kings Fund and the Nuffield Trust, among others.
If Labour members of parliament, and MPs of other parties, can create a demand for a cross-party approach to the long term future of health and social care, we could achieve something that lasts; securing the NHS for generations to come.
Caroline Flint is member of parliament for Don Valley. She tweets at @CarolineFlintMP
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