Leeds St James hospital RCN strike. Photo: Socialist Party
Leeds St James hospital RCN strike. Photo: Socialist Party

Jon Dale, Unite the Union Nottinghamshire health branch secretary

Nurses and ambulance workers on picket lines want to know how Labour would rebuild the NHS. So do patients needing GP or dental appointments, queueing in A&E or waiting for surgery.

But statements by Labour leader Keir Starmer and Labour shadow health secretary Wes Streeting make it crystal clear the NHS crisis will not be eased by Labour. Instead, the drive towards privatisation will continue, following the failed pattern set by Tony Blair’s Labour government.

“Had a Labour government been in office this year, hundreds of thousands more patients would have been treated on the NHS in private hospitals,” according to Streeting. During the pandemic, the Tory government paid private hospitals an extra 25% to treat NHS patients. Yet 43% less healthcare was delivered by them than the year before the pandemic!

Waiting lists

Long waiting lists drive more desperate people to pay for private treatment. Private hospitals can make more money from self-funding patients than they’re paid by the NHS. So the NHS is likely to have to pay over the odds for the private sector to treat more NHS patients.

Private medical companies benefit from long NHS waiting lists and from NHS-trained staff. They cherry-pick patients, leaving complex cases to the NHS.

Few private hospitals have intensive-care beds. So if anything goes wrong, they send the patient back to an NHS hospital.

Instead of pouring more public money into private health industry profits, as Starmer and Streeting advocate, the industry should be nationalised, and its facilities integrated with the NHS.

Streeting says: “Successive governments do run into resistance to change within the professions… the status quo is driven by provider interest, producer interest, and not by patient interest.”

Incredibly, he blames this crisis on NHS staff working round the clock under impossible strains, on much lower real pay than a decade ago. Instead, Labour should be blaming years of underfunding and privatisation. No health workers want this ‘status quo’ to continue.

Spot the difference

“We are not going to have a ‘something for nothing’ culture in the NHS with Labour… I’m not frightened to take on vested interests, and I’m not afraid to tell the BMA or other unions ‘no’”. Try and spot a difference between Streeting and any Tory health minister!

Blair said much the same in 1999, speaking to the British Venture Capitalists Association: “People in the public sector are more rooted in the concept that ‘if it’s always done this way, it must always be done this way’ than any group of people I’ve come across.”

Labour’s leaders say nothing about increasing NHS funding beyond abolishing ‘non-dom’ tax status, and using this £3.2 billion to train more doctors and nurses. Welcome though this small step would be, where is the pledge to pay for these staff once trained?

NHS England says it is £7 billion short this coming year. But Streeting says: “The state of the public finances means that Labour will not be able to open the government cheque book.” So, more below-inflation pay ‘rises’ under Labour.

Health workers are becoming burned out after years of underfunding and growing need, due to an ageing population, increasing poverty and slashed public services. Recently trained staff are leaving.

Burn out

Older staff take early retirement, or sign up with an agency and go part-time. Training more workers without reversing past cuts won’t end this crisis.

It’s hardly surprising Streeting pushes more NHS use of the private health sector. Last January, he took a £15,000 donation from hedge fund boss John Armitage.

Armitage has previously given the Tories £3 million. His hedge fund owns $580 million of shares in United Health, the largest US private health corporation.

Health workers and patients can’t rely on Labour to come to their rescue. We need a new party fighting to rebuild the NHS and socialist policies to do it. Trade unions should use their funds to build such a party, not prop up Labour with its big business allies.

Come and discuss at the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) conference

‘Keir Starmer’s heading for No. 10. So what should we do at the general election?’

Saturday 4 February, 11am-4:30pm, Room B34, Birkbeck College, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX