Starmer accused of taking Blairite line on health service strikes

UK workers concerned about lack of support as nurses prepare first walk out in 106-year history

Labour leader Keir Starmer accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of going 'into hibernation' during strikes. AFP
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Labour leader Keir Starmer and shadow health secretary Wes Streeting have been accused of adopting a New Labour line on UK healthcare reform, sparking fears from workers of a lack of political support as they take strike action.

As Britain braces for historic strikes among workers in the National Health Service, Mr Starmer continues to accuse the Conservative government of failing to negotiate with unions demanding pay rises.

At the same time, Mr Starmer has not abandoned his stance that the 19 per cent pay rise being sought by nurses is unaffordable.

For the first time in the Royal College of Nursing’s 106-year history, members across the country will stage a walkout on Thursday and again on December 20 after Rishi Sunak’s administration rejected their request for a 19 per cent pay rise.

On December 21, about 10,000 ambulance workers across nine NHS trusts in England and Wales will take part in industrial action in a dispute over pay. The Unite union said the most recent offer of a pay rise under the Agenda for Change scale amounts to a real terms pay cut because inflation is at a 40-year high.

During Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, the Labour leader said Rishi Sunak “has curled up in a ball and gone into hibernation” while “winter has arrived for our public services”.

He said the Prime Minister was “pretending everything is fine”.

“Try telling that to those on waiting lists or those that can’t afford to pay for a next-day GP appointment,” he added.

“After 12 years of Tory failure, winter has arrived for our public services.

“If he can’t act on behalf of patients or nurses, or everyone who wants these strikes called off, then surely the whole country’s entitled to ask what is the point of him and what is the point of the government he is supposed to be leading?”

Sir Keir Starmer's approach to leadership has been likened to Tony Blair's. PA

At the Institute for Public Policy Research’s health conference in London last week, Mr Streeting blamed “Conservative mismanagement of our public services over the past 12 years” for the “doom spiral” gripping Britain.

The shadow health secretary has incurred the wrath of the British Medical Association with his calls for NHS reform. In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, he claimed the doctors’ union was “hostile” towards Labour’s plans for the health service because the party wanted to improve standards for patients, which could mean different working hours for GPs.

“Whenever I point out the appalling state of access to primary care, where currently a record two million people are waiting more than a month to see a GP, I am treated like some sort of heretic by the BMA — who seem to think any criticism of patient access to primary care is somehow an attack on GPs,” he said.

Allyson Pollock, a clinical professor of public health at Newcastle University, told The National that Labour’s approach to the NHS is not constructive because it largely ignores the root causes of the service’s problems.

She said politicians across the political spectrum too often blame the Covid-19 pandemic for years of mismanagement.

She likened the opposition party’s line to that adopted by New Labour. The term refers to the period in the mid- to late-1990s under the leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, when Labour was presented as a reformed party.

“I think the most surprising thing is that neither Keir Starmer nor Wes Streeting have pointed to the 30 years of progressive dismantling of the NHS,” she said.

“I would have expected them to set out what they mean by reform. I was dismayed because they are missing the fundamental critique of what’s happening to the NHS. They have failed to articulate the real problems with the system.

“It is clear that new legislation is needed to reinstate the NHS. The workforce problems are a consequence of the running down of the NHS and failure to undertake workforce planning. This was all predicted and predictable.

“It appears that Keir Starmer is adopting the New Labour line which is it doesn’t matter who provides the services so long as there is public funding. But the evidence shows privatisation leads to waste and inequality.

“Labour needs to take a long, hard look at the system and how it’s being dismantled and destroyed. They should be much stronger in their analysis of why the system is breaking.

“There has been a long-term ideological shift away from belief in public services and a belief in markets since New Labour and the Blair government, with the exception of the short period when Jeremy Corbyn was the leader of the Labour opposition.”

Ms Pollock said laying the blame for the NHS’s problems on the Covid-19 pandemic was a mere diversion tactic used by politicians. She argued that many problems affecting the health service today existed years ago and have only continued or worsened.

She said it was “not good enough just to say the NHS is underfunded” without taking into account where money has been channelled to.

“The real story is where is the money going?” she said. “Many billions of pounds are flowing out in contracts with bankers, equity investors, shareholders and director's remuneration — billions of pounds are flowing out to the private sector. It’s all unscrutinised and there is a lack of transparency.

“The NHS has become inefficient because of the way money is leaking out of it and the way money is being diverted to commercial contracting and commercial providers.”

Nurses on strike in the UK — in pictures

Updated: December 15, 2022, 11:17 AM