A groundswell of professional and public opinion has put the UK Coalition in hot water, giving Labour a real chance to fatally brand the Tories, once again, as the enemies of the National Health Service
Less than a year since the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats formed a government, they are in deep trouble together. Opinion polls ratings for the coalition have plummeted to the extent that their combined support is barely equal to Labour's. In forthcoming elections for council seats, the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament the coalition partners will see their seats fall. In particular, the Lib Dems, who ran as a progressive alternative to Labour are going to be punished for putting the Tories into power.
All new governments get a honeymoon, but they're getting briefer and briefer. Moreover, anyone ushering in the scale of cuts the coalition are proposing (£81bn) can not expect to be popular, for even if they are convinced that their fiscal approach is the correct one, they also know that pain precedes any possible gain.
So far, so predictable, but something else is going on in Britain. A deeper hostility is being stirred amongst voters, and it is to do with that most British of institutions - the National Health Service. Ironically, while in opposition Prime Minister David Cameron staked his reputation on his support for the NHS. Having praised his first-hand experience of care for his family, he went on to pledge that a Conservative government would not pursue top-down re-organisation of the health service. Nor should we forget poster campaign which, in every city in Britain, featured an air brushed picture of Cameron alongside his personal promise - 'I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS.' Unequivocal, and one of many changes that ‘detoxified’ the Tory brand, it helped make them the single biggest party in Parliament.
Coalitions are about compromise of course, yet after the election the Tories and Lib Dems reiterated the same pledge in their coalition agreement. It came as a shock then. When by the summer Tory Health Secretary Andrew Lansley unveiled a reorganisation of the health service so great that the Chief Executive of the NHS said that it could be seen from space. It's genuinely hard to know what they were thinking. Was this top-down reorganisation OK because it wasn't 'pointless'. Or is it OK because, although top down (legislated from central government), it seeks to devolve power to GPs and is therefore, in the end, a 'bottom-up' reorganisation. Who knows? Whatever their motivation, it has proved to be a massive miscalculation.
This month one of the main nursing unions passed a vote of no confidence in the Health Secretary - with 96% voting in favour of the motion. We have to go back through 30 years of British political history to the days of Thatcher to find the last time this happened. This action follows the government’s unprecedented move withdraw the NHS legislation from parliament in order for the coalition to 'pause' and listen to concerns about the proposals.
This is an odd move given that Cameron previously boasted that his Health Secretary was a man who knew more than anyone else about how the NHS works, having spent five years in opposition shadowing health. In reality, it would appear Lansley learned next to nothing in his during his opposition years. He has an almost Maoist commitment to change, but lacks the ability to articulate the problem he is trying to solve. Public satisfaction with the NHS and health spending is at an all-time high. Labour's targets and investment were guaranteeing treatment from GP to hospital within 18 weeks and patients had the choice of any hospital - public, private or voluntary.
Destructive, unpopular and inexplicable reforms combined with broken promises give Labour a real chance to fatally brand the Tories, once again, as the enemies of the NHS.
A contribution to the State of the Left, a monthly insight report from Policy Network's Social Democracy Observatory
John McTernan is a commentator and political strategist who works
internationally. He was political secretary to Tony Blair and has been
an adviser on health, welfare, defence and Scotland