Labour puts NHS at the centre of 2015 General Election during Party Conference

The NHS, as expected, has taken centre stage at this year’s Labour Party conference, with a number of the Shadow Cabinet talking extensively about the Labour’s health plans, which promise to be at the centre of the Party’s general election campaign.

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls used part of his Conference speech to argue Labour’s credentials as the party that could be most trusted to run the NHS, drawing a sharp distinction with the Conservatives, adding that “it’s the oldest truth in British politics: you can never ever trust the Tories with our NHS”. He had previously given an interview with The Guardian, in which he hinted that the Party was looking at ways to protect and increase funding for the NHS without raising taxes.

Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham took the torch on Monday when he addressed a conference fringe event to unveil details of his 10-year plan to merge health and social care services, stressing that this would not require another re-organisation but would see existing organisations working more closely together, adding that local government would take a lead in commissioning health services under a Labour administration, in a model that would re-establish “the link between health and education, health and planning, health and leisure, but crucially health and housing”.

In his actual speech on Wednesday Burnham, as expected, focused his criticism on the “top-down re-organisation” of the system and what he considers as a plan to “run it down, break it up, sell it off” The rest of his speech focused mostly on care provision and his belief that it is unaffordable in its current form, as well as on outlining his proposals for “an NHS for the whole person, an NHS for carers, an NHS personal to you”.

He reiterated the point that a Labour Government would repeal the Health and Social Care Act and reinstate the NHS as the preferred provider, while hospital and other NHS bodies will evolve over a 10-year period into “NHS Integrated Care Organisations”, coordinating all care, physical, mental and social, working from home or from hospital. He also stated that patients and relatives will have a single contact person for all their needs and a personalised care plan to reflect them. The Shadow Health Secretary added that mental health nurses and therapists would see their role reinforced by being put “at the heart of this team”, as opposed to being on the fringes, while private health providers will be asked to contribute to the costs of the necessary training.

Framing his speech around the need to protect the work of carers, Burnham announced new measures to support them: protected funding for breaks, the right to ask for an annual health check and help with hospital car parking.

Meanwhile, Shadow Care Minister Liz Kendall used an interview with Total Politics Magazine to outilne once again the Party’s proposals for a “whole-person”, integrated health and care model.

In his Conference speech Labour Leader Ed Miliband also put the NHS at the centre of his election campaign, through the following announcements:

  • Introduction of a £2.5 billion “Time to Care” fund, which will be funded a mansion tax on properties worth more than £2 million, closing tax loopholes and tackling tax avoidance (focused on City hedge funds) and levying a windfall tax on tobacco companies.
  • Miliband repeated the well-known themes of service fragmentation and privatisation, reiterating that a Labour Government would repeal the Health and Social Care Act.
  • He expressed support for improving community services (“hospital services are only as good as community services” and promised staff increases

It is uncertain how well the announcement will go down with Ed Balls, given that he generally appeared not to support tax increases and had ruled out an estates tax earlier this summer.

Ed Miliband’s speech this week ended speculation on the Party’s funding plans for the NHS and will likely draw the “battle lines” on the topic of the NHS ahead of the General Election. The Party has committed to making no unfunded proposals, which would mean that a possible Conservative reaction would focus on attempting to dismantle arguments about the expected revenue from such taxes and the feasibility of Labour’s proposals, advancing the argument that Labour “cannot be trusted with the economy”.