I never expected to see the day when I could say, hand on heart, that I was more interested in events at a Lib Dem Spring Conference than the weekend’s football. But life’s full of surprises and that moment has arrived.
It is no over-statement to say that this weekend’s gathering in Gateshead could determine the future of our country’s best-loved institution.
As you prepare for the weekend, I wanted to make a direct appeal to the grassroots members of your party: please stand out against the current direction of reform and stand up for the NHS model we all have been able to depend on and trust for 63 years. Between our two parties, we just about have the power to stop a Bill that will cause it great damage. I also wanted to issue an invitation to those of you who feel the same as us to help us build an alternative vision for an integrated NHS in this century of the ageing society.
I feel sure your President Tim Farron spoke for many Liberal Democrats in saying the Bill should have been dropped. Only three weeks ago, Lady Williams argued that the third part of the Bill, the competition chapters, should be deleted.
If our two parties had worked together on this aim, there’s a fair chance we could have achieved it and mitigated the damage. That’s frustrating. But it’s not too late. Parliament is sleepwalking into the looming disaster for the NHS of this defective Bill entering the Statute Book but it is within your power to stop it.
It is clear that many prominent Liberal Democrats, in private if not in public, consider this Bill to be a dud. I feel certain that the long-term best interests of your Party are better served by acknowledging that and doing something about it, rather than acting out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to the Coalition. In doing so, you would of course be implementing the letter of the Coalition Agreement.
We are disappointed by this week’s events in the Lords. We feel many of your Peers and MPs have let you down. But next week we are giving the Commons a final chance to drop the Bill. Government backbenchers have denied 170,000 people, who signed the Drop the Bill e-petition, the debate they deserve. Labour will correct that by forcing a debate and vote next Tuesday afternoon in the House of Commons. When you see your MPs this weekend, please ask them to put the NHS first and join us in that vote.
I have no doubt that some will read my motive in writing this blog as a tactic for narrow party gain. There’s not much I can do about that, save to say it’s simply not the case. The truth is Labour’s narrow political interests are probably best served by the Coalition simply ploughing on with this disastrous Bill. But, even so, I desperately want them to stop.
I know the NHS can only be preserved for the rest of this century by building a broad consensus that goes beyond any one Party. Nothing matters more to me than protecting the NHS and that is my motivation in making this appeal to you.
We should work together to build a new coalition for the NHS – of patients, professionals and people from all parties who share the same view – to protect it from market forces and the money motive running riot.
Please give that some thought and discuss it in Gateshead this weekend. It’s important as more cross-Party consensus is going to be needed if we are to enable the NHS to make some of the difficult service changes it needs to make to have a care model ready for the challenges of this century.
It probably goes without saying that you didn’t agree with everything Labour did in Government. The NHS isn’t perfect but, by the time we left Government, it was judged one of the world’s best healthcare system with the lowest ever waiting lists and highest ever patient satisfaction. This NHS model which your Party helped conceive isn’t broken. In fact, it’s the envy of the world and the answer, not the barrier, to meeting the challenges of the 21st century.
I know that many Lib Dem activists know in their heart of hearts that this Bill is bad for the NHS. This weekend in Gateshead, please tell that truth to power.
* Andy Burnham is Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Health.