On the eve of the passage of the Health and Social Care Act last March, I was at my wits’ end with the anti-reforms campaign. The public understood little about the legislation that was about to be made law, and there was no mandate for the Bill to be passed. Everything we’d tried to do had failed, whether lobbying, protesting, flyering, blogging, or even cancer specialist Dr Clive Peedell running 160 miles to Westminster. Parliament had failed to adequately scrutinise the Bill, and MPs had failed to communicate to their constituents what was being enacted. There was only one option left, my colleagues felt, and that was direct political opposition.
That was the moment National Health Action was conceived. Campaigners Dr Peedell and Dr Richard Taylor established the idea of a single-issue party, made up of NHS professionals and patients against privatisation. I joined them on the executive, as did Dr Jacky Davis, a consultant radiologist, and several other doctors including public health specialists. Dr Taylor was a particularly key individual, as the only independent candidate in England to have won two terms as MP. His electoral victory in 2001 was based on a campaign to improve services at Kidderminster General Hospital, so he had direct experience of a successful, local pro-NHS campaign.
We started to meet up last April, after the Bill passed. We knew that we wanted to have an inclusive party, but knew it had to be spearheaded by NHS professionals who have frontline experience of how the changes are already affecting care. We decided the party would have two main aims – the first was to survey which MPs wanted to repeal the Act, and support them, and the second was to support Prospective parliamentary candidates who’d stand in up to 50 carefully chosen general election constituencies, advised by the psephologist on our executive committee. The party will also field candidates in local council elections.
We decided to target high profile seats around the country, in order to raise awareness, knowing that we might not be running ‘successful’ campaigns but that we’d raise awareness amongst patients. But we also wanted to target swing seats in constituencies where Tory or Lib Dem voters felt worried about the threat to the NHS. For us, the NHS is a political cause that cuts across the board – we think every voter will take an interest.
Some MPs are already with us, and we don’t want to unseat anyone who’s willing to fight the reforms. But, for instance, the Labour party has quite a mixed track record on the NHS. Certainly the last ten years of Labour rule saw more investment in health services, resulting in improvements like shorter waiting times. But Labour also laid the foundations for privatisation. We are really please Labour is now officially committed to repealing the Act, but we feel we need to keep the pressure on Labour to ensure it delivers on its promise.
We hope to finalise the list of 50 seats by 2014, and expect most candidates to be local to their constituency, and many of whom will be NHS professionals. Our main tasks now are to build local support groups now and elect a new executive.
We are also preparing four statements on subjects including the repeal of the Health Act and the renegotiation of PFI contracts which we’ll put to MPs over the next three months, in order to take a comprehensive survey of their views on the privatisation of the NHS. We think a lot of MPs would like to have criticised the Bill – for instance, Dr Sarah Wollaston called the reforms a ‘hand grenade’ until she was reprimanded by the whip. We know it’s hard to toe the party line and represent constituents at once, so we hope a surge of public outcry will throw this issue into perspective.
It might look eccentric to stand as a single issue party, but if you compare us to a party like the Greens, it’s easy to see that standing for one principle – such as universal free healthcare – can shape your approach to others. Health concerns touch everyone’s lives and often turn up in other areas such as social care, housing and environment,.
At a time when contract negotiations are brewing up a storm, I sympathise with the instinct to batten down the hatches. But I’d urge you not to ignore what’s happening to the NHS. MPs have ignored the campaign as long as it’s been outside the doors of Parliament. It seems the last option for us is to take a stand in the House of Commons.
Dr Louise Irvine is a BMA Council member and a GP in Lewisham, south-east London. She’s one of seven doctors in the NHA designate executive.