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When a country’s parliament attacks its people’s most cherished institution, what is to be done? This was the question facing a group of doctors and NHS activists in the wake of the Health and Social Care Act. Their answer, straightforwardly, was to try to get into parliament.
‘It was through disappointment with the democratic process that we decided the way of responding was through the ballot box,’ says Dr Clive Peedell, a consultant oncologist, and now co-leader of the National Health Action Party (NHA), launched in November 2012. The NHA plans to stand up to 50 candidates in the next general election on a pro-NHS platform.
It is a dramatic step, but the stakes are high. ‘The next election is the last chance for the NHS,’ says Peedell. ‘If the Conservatives get back in and continue the way they are going it will be incredibly difficult to ever reverse the damage. Some people are already arguing that it may be impossible to repeal the Health Act because of EU competition law and trade agreements. Another five years and we’ve got no chance. It’d be a disaster for the NHS.’
Peedell rejects the familiar argument that the only way to stop a Tory government is to help elect a Labour one: ‘All three major parties have supported the market approach in the NHS. The point of the NHA is to challenge that market dogma.’ But one of the aims is to ‘make Labour rethink’. The NHA will carefully choose the constituencies where it stands – there is even a psephologist on the executive committee. ‘We don’t want to split the anti-coalition vote in areas where Labour has a chance, but we will also put pressure on Labour by standing against some pro-market Blairites, which will be a powerful message to say this is about taking on the ideology of the market.’
Labour’s health spokesman Andy Burnham has pledged to repeal the Health Act if elected, but for Peedell that is not enough. ‘Even if they completely repealed it we’re still left with a market system. Labour needs an NHS preferred provider policy, that’s what we want to see from them.’
Such a policy would require the NHS to seek to provide healthcare in-house. Peedell sees this as one of the last-gasp ways to save the NHS. ‘I believe there’s a chance we can hold back the private sector, and an NHS preferred provider policy could kill off some of these healthcare companies – the surprising thing is many of them are not that financially healthy. Certainly part of our tactic is to frighten off the private sector, to say to them, “Take over the NHS at your peril because we will fight you every step of the way.” That makes it a less attractive investment.’
Despite such strident language, Peedell is no socialist. In a Guardian interview last November he described socialism as ‘nonsense that died out 30 years ago’. Given that many NHS campaigners are socialists, was that wise? ‘I’m centre left in my political views,’ Peedell says. ‘I don’t believe in the idea of all industries being owned by the government. For example, I’d renationalise the railways but not the car industry. I believe in a regulated capitalism, with healthcare socialised.’
Another factor behind Peedell’s Guardian comments may be that the NHA will have to attract Tory and Lib Dem voters in most of its target seats. Peedell admits he is anxious to ‘avoid being seen as a Labour-front organisation’. He says the NHA intends to ‘use the language of evidence-based policy rather than terms like “left” and “socialism”’. And by emphasising ‘our loss of sovereignty over economic and public service policy, which has been transferred through privatisation’, he is simultaneously appealing to the right’s fixation on EU law and the left’s horror at marketisation.
So what are the chances of the NHA sending MPs to Westminster? One poll commissioned by the Tories’ Lord Ashcroft suggested the NHA could get 18 per cent of the vote, a figure that sent shockwaves through the established parties.
‘We could catch the wave of public opinion and win a few seats,’ says Peedell hopefully. ‘If it’s a tight election we could be kingmakers in a hung parliament. We can damage the coalition in all constituencies even though we’re only standing in a certain number. The aim is to win seats if we can, but to make the NHS the second issue at the next election, behind the economy. We feel the BBC and the media let us down over the Act, and forming a political party is one way of raising awareness of what’s going on.’
‘The NHS is something that people support,’ Peedell says, ‘and we can connect with that through social media and reach a wider spectrum of people than normal politics can.’ Peedell also has some eye-catching publicity stunts in store, building on last year’s ‘Bevan’s Run’, when he ran six marathon distances in six days as a protest at the health bill.
The NHA also has a winning model to follow. In the 2001 and 2005 elections, Dr Richard Taylor, who is now the other co-leader of the NHA, was elected as an independent MP on the back of a campaign against the closure of Kidderminster’s A&E department. Peedell believes Kidderminster-style local campaigns could ‘spring up all over the place’, prompted by closures that he says are directly linked to privatisation.
‘Facilities are being closed in reconfigurations, which are actually about reducing the cost of entry to the NHS market. That’s why they want smaller scale health facilities, so private companies have to take less of a risk.’
Awkwardly, the chances for the NHA are inversely proportional to the health of the NHS.
‘Morally I don’t want to see patients suffer,’ Peedell says, ‘but by the next election the £20 billion efficiency drive will have really kicked in. Foundation trusts are already in horrible trouble. I think we will see the service fail before the next election.’