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Rob Leitch: Cameron and Lansley's health reforms show woeful political judgement

Robert Leitch is a Parliamentary researcher and Chairman of CarePlus, a charity which works with the elderly in South East London.  Follow him on Twitter at @Rob_Leitch

Screen shot 2012-02-08 at 15.16.59In the seemingly never-ending post-mortem into the failure of the New Labour project, it is commonly suggested that Tony Blair failed to capitalise on his post-landslide Labour Government during its first few years. Indeed, countless political commentators, and even Mr Blair himself, have concluded that the New Labour’s reforming agenda lost steam too quickly in the late 1990s and never quite took off again.

As with many things Blair-related, this analysis has been brooded on frequently in the highest echelons of CCHQ, and more recently Downing Street itself. The consensus is that Team Cameron must not make the same mistake. Regardless of the constraints of coalition, those at the top see radical reform as the only way to make a difference, to get results - to win the next election.

A desire to reform is not necessarily a bad thing. A desire to reform the National Health Service when there is little money, greater priorities and deep-rooted institutional and political opposition is, however, simply naive.

To be blunt, the Health and Social Care Bill represents an unprecedented reorganisation of the NHS - be it top-down, bottom-up or anything in between. We shouldn’t fear undertaking such mammoth reforms but we shouldn’t continue to peddle the line that this isn’t a reorganisation. An ageing population, increasing costs of medication and new technological breakthroughs - these are all reasonable justifications for modernisation. In essence, whilst our health reforms may well be founded on evidence-based rationale, they show woeful political judgement.

Frankly, such wide-ranging NHS reforms should never have been on the cards for a first term in office. With the economy accepted as the overriding priority facing the country, no-one would have criticised the Conservative-Liberal coalition for simply maintaining NHS spending without rushing around drawing up new legislation. In the run up to 2015, we could then have campaigned for the next election pledging to finish the economic job before turning to domestic matters as soon as the economy allowed.

Instead, from losing legislative momentum with a "listening exercise" to resorting to political attacks on respected medical bodies (as discussed superbly by Dr Rachel Joyce on this site recently), we are simply thrashing about. Truth be told, the party leadership is split on whether to push ahead unrepentantly or alternatively to kick the Bill into the long grass at the least damaging time.

The electoral area of health now represents an open goal for the Labour Party. Our failings in pushing ahead with this deeply unpopular reforming obsession will undoubtedly cost us the public’s trust on the NHS, which to be frank we enjoyed only fleeting before the election. I doubt that Labour strategists are particularly excited about many things these days, but health now gives them hope. For even with the most ineffective, hopeless and lacklustre leader, "events, dear boy events", can provide the most unlikely of political comebacks.

By presenting such a key electoral issue as a freebie to the opposition, we are also providing Ed Miliband with a remarkable opportunity. We will not be able to claim victory on the economy at the next election. At best we will ask the electorate for more time to repair the economic mess, highlighting that things would be a whole lot worse under Labour.

In the meantime, if this toxic bill is dropped, further watered down or implemented with the most minimal of support, Miliband could be portrayed as the man who loyally opposed, defended, protected - perhaps even saved the NHS. Such a scenario could in fact conjure up a rather powerful image, one capable of penetrating the electoral group who most frequently register concerns about NHS reforms: middle England.

It is a depressing thought, but our own NHS reforms may just act as the crucial life support which saves Ed Miliband’s career, potentially even launching him towards No.10.  Ultimately, health reform was the wrong battle at the wrong time - and one which we seem destined to lose.


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