Neither Major UK Party can be Trusted with the NHS

Graham Bell, 3 April 2011

Categories: Politics | NHS | New Labour | Conservative Party |

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Good news came yesterday for the campaign to save the NHS, as David Cameron proposed safeguards to prevent private firms from cherry-picking the profitable services within. The changes being implemented on the body were seen by most as benefiting only the corporate in the UK, and not as being in the best interest of the taxpayers who fund the system.

A recurring misconception in the British media is that the NHS was intact and safe from the forces of privatisation before the conservatives came to power. While it is very important that the population is made aware of the changes to their state healthcare system, it is equally important to know that the essence of this practice is nothing new. Since the 1980s, major changes of the NHS have taken place under neoliberal economics. When it comes to dealing with the NHS, the same overarching philosophy has been employed by Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown.

Many of the ‘reforms’ see a larger proportion of public money becoming the profit of private corporations as they take a larger and larger share of the public health service. The dangers of this are well-known. A briefing note prepared by the Health Committee for the House of Commons in November 2005 even warned that “A marketised NHS…will lead to lower levels of efficiency” because of “fraud and embezzlement” (1).

Take a quick look back to the creation of the NHS, the post-WWII days. Richard Seymour tells us that healthcare and other industries were only nationalised so that the cost of economic failure could be socialised (much like the bailout of the banks today). A bailout of failing businesses was one of the steps towards the existence today of a state-run healthcare system (2). The NHS has of course got a number of internal sectors which can be profitable, and it follows from neoliberal practices that state-owned assets which can generate profit should and will be sold off to private corporations.

In the 1980s, the dismantling of health services began to affect the elderly patients of the UK. Much of this did not get any attention, presumably as it affected quite a vulnerable proportion of the population who were unlikely to complain. Patients were forced to move from free public care into costly nursing homes, having to sell houses and use savings to cover these costs (3). This became clear to the public in a BBC Panorama programme entitled “National homes swindle” which aired in 2005.

There is an illusion in much of the Labour-supporting press that the Labour party do not encourage privatisation of the NHS. The Guardian points out that Conservative privatisation of the NHS “dwarfs plans started under the Labour government, which maintained that the NHS would be the ‘preferred provider’ of services”. That Conservative plans dwarf those of Labour is no doubt true, but it is worth at this point looking at the 1997 New Labour election manifesto, when Labour promised to “develop new forms of public/private partnership”, ending the “Conservative’s internal market in healthcare”. The New Labour government would then go on to “open the NHS wide open not just to an internal, but to an external, market” (4).

The Daily Mirror would have you believe that the NHS was run in the public’s best interest before the election of the current government. They suggested on March 24th that the ConDem reforms will lead to “companies cherry picking profitable services”, as though it is not already happening. The previous Labour government in fact allowed the potentially profitable parts of the NHS, such as construction of new hospitals, to be “cherry-picked”. Another Daily Mirror piece from January 2010 quotes the Shadow Health Secretary saying that “Everyone saw big improvements in the NHS with Labour”. An example of the cherry-picking and 'big improvements' that took place is the leasing of the operation of a car park in West Suffolk (which generated £660,000 profit each year) to a private firm for seven years for a one-off payment of £3.8m in 2005 under New Labour (5), which saw a short-term boost of money for the service but a long-term loss of revenue.

New Labour policy saw public/private partnerships being used to construct new hospitals. Under these agreements, private corporations would build hospitals and lease them back to the NHS (6). If these hospitals were purchased by the NHS, it would perhaps have been a more sensible way to spend public money, but leasing ensures continued, indefinite profits for the private sector. In 2006 George Monbiot wrote about an instance of a Private Finance Initiative being used by the NHS, concluding that Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major all supported Private Finance Initiatives, “however many scandals it produces”. Claire Rayner, a campaigner for patient’s rights who passed away in 2010, withdrew her support for the Labour party in 2001 because of Tony Blair’s proposed changes which moved heavily towards more private control of the system.

What is happening now to the NHS is by any standards a brutal, regressive move. It must be understood, however, that New Labour do not provide the alternative to this problem, but have a proven history of implementing the same broad neoliberal policy that is being unleashed by the conservative government today. Much like the presence of many Labour party groups at the March 26th ‘March for the Alternative’, and Ed Miliband speaking at the rally following the march, their flagrant criticism of the Conservative party for NHS ‘reforms’ is hypocritical. Those who want to save the NHS in the long term should consider moving their political support very far away from the existing major parties in the UK.


1. House of Commons Health Committee (2005) Changes to Primary Care Trusts. London: House of Commons, pp Ev 95 (Memorandum submitted by the Centre for International Public Health Policy, University of Edinburgh) (

2. Seymour, Richard (2010). The meaning of David Cameron. Ropley: 0-Books, p. 26

3. Mandelstam, Michael (2007). Betraying the NHS. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, p. 206

4. Ibid, p. 77

5. Ibid, p. 80

6. Ibid, p. 30

Categories in which this article appears: Politics | NHS | New Labour | Conservative Party |

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