Wednesday, 21 March 2012

What did Labour gain with #dropthebill?

Time will tell on this one, but I'm concerned that Labour may not realise how much they may have shot themselves in the foot over the NHS reforms, or...even worse...how they let political opportunism trump ensuring that the country avoids the dangers that they predicted.

The background is simple, Labour started the ball rolling on privatisation and, in a purely financial way, competition in the NHS. It's been taken further and moulded in to a slightly different shape, but the core is still there. Unfortunately there are also ambiguities, unclear definitions and concerning aspects to the reforms.

Labour chose to outright oppose the bill, opting to try and inflict the ultimate humiliation of forcing a government to drop a flagship piece of law after almost a year's worth of time and effort going in to it. The gains for Labour on this would have been considerable if they'd have achieved it, but as it happens they've managed to only achieve modest gains and failed in their goal of finishing the bill.

Of course that assumes that they ever thought that they would get the bill dropped anyway. And this is why I wonder about the direction that they've taken. If Labour knew that they wouldn't get this bill dropped, and that they would be playing on stirring up hatred of the Tories for "destroying" the NHS, do they also realise this is fraught with public opinion related danger?

This option that they have taken has short term gains, this is undeniable, and unfortunately some people will be misinformed enough (and partisan enough) to believe a lot of what Labour have said long after it has been disproved. In the long term though it relies on the NHS actually falling apart. If, by the next election, waiting times haven't sky rocketed, and patients up and down the country aren't complaining about not being able to see their GP because of all the bus loads of private patients taking all the timeslots, then people will in general see through what Labour have tried to do here.

In the long term, this scenario surely only leads to distrust of Labour, and a cautious sheepishness over believing them compared to those "evil" coalition government members who said that it wouldn't be like that?

But what about the other course they could have taken, constructive engagement? By working with the Lib Dems as they woke up to the dangers of this bill early on, time spent in the house of commons simply trading soundbites for the media, petulantly opposing each other's view points, all three parties could have come to the table and come up with a bill that is not far from what we have now, but with all the ambiguous and potentially bad parts completely removed or cleared up.

As a party they would be able to say, as now Lib Dems will be trying to, that they took a bad bill, put aside political differences, and worked in the interest of the people to make the reforms in the interest of patients, not profits. In the short term it may not have reaped any benefits, but showcasing that they are ready to govern, and that they are growing up out of this idiotic "oppose everything" stage that they're going through, would almost certainly gain them support in the long run.

Instead the coalition had little choice, given the campaign against them, but to spend their effort justifying what was there and getting it to the finish line. Time that they might have otherwise spent engaging was instead spent putting up defences, useless to the enhancement of the bill itself, ensuring that all three parties have ended up neglecting all of us in pursuit of scoring some bloody noses.

If the NHS stays standing, and doesn't seriously decline in standards (which unfortunately may be expected due to reduction of funding that any of the three parties would have opted for), will people still believe the soundbites, or the reality?