NHS Battle Begins
The first shots have been fired in the battle for the National Health Service over the general election campaign and, needless to say, it was Labour that kicked things off. Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, toured the television and radio studios this morning to announce that, in Government, Labour would end the 1 per cent pay cap for around 1.3m NHS staff including nurses, midwives, doctors and the allied health professionals.
His venue for the official announcement, Unison’s health conference, speaks volumes about Labour’s target audience for this election campaign. It is a return to the comfortable ground the party fought the 2015 election on, which was a campaign focused on the NHS and the ‘squeezed middle’ It is an appeal to Labour’s core vote – public sector workers, older people who rely on the NHS – not to abandon the party over concerns about Brexit, instead reiterating Labour’s commitment to strong, well-funded public services.
Crucially, Labour frames the pay rise not as a gift to a relatively limited number of public servants, but as a necessary measure for securing the future of the service. The pay rise, Labour argues, would halt the steady flow of practitioners leaving the NHS for private services and foreign lands.
The second part of Labour’s NHS workforce policy is that it would introduce a safe staffing law, which would force hospital managers to follow new National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines on safe staffing levels, so that patient need is put first in staff rotas.
The announcement has naturally been welcomed by key stakeholders, but it is unclear how many votes Labour will gain from this. It seems to have been calculated to retain as many votes as possible in key seats in the north, where public sector workers make up a larger proportion of the population than in the south, where Labour’s prospects of gains are limited.
It is also unclear where the money for this spending commitment will come from. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested that adding 1 per cent to the pay settlement would cost around £500m. Labour has countered this by arguing the retention of staff and savings from unnecessary locum spending would cover the cost.
Labour’s third workforce policy is to restore funding to the training of health professionals, including bringing back bursaries scrapped by the Conservatives. This will appeal strongly to the families of those individuals applying to enter training.
The announcement has set the tone for Labour’s campaign: a return for collective bargaining, a commitment to giving the NHS what it needs, and an insistence that this election does not have to be focused on Brexit, an issue on which Labour will inevitably come off worse.