Covid has put the NHS front and centre. But Labour needs to beware, 2019 showed that support for the NHS does not equal votes for Labour

by David Talbot

On the morning after consigning the Labour Party to a fourth and devastating general election defeat, the Prime Minister addressed the nation from the steps of Downing Street. In the early glow of election victory, Boris Johnson informed the party faithful and, more importantly, the millions of converted Labour voters that the “NHS is this One Nation government’s top priority”.

Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party had tried awfully hard during the preceding six weeks to make the NHS the central focus of the election. Chants of “not for sale!” reverberated around campaign rallies as a dossier exposing the “secret agenda” to sell off the NHS to US corporations was thrust into the heart of the campaign.

It was easy to understand Labour’s desire to move the debate from the Conservatives’ favoured ground of Brexit, and its pithy slogan, to the one policy area the party led on. Indeed, at the start of the campaign, the NHS was cited by more (60%) of the population than Brexit (56%) as the most important issue facing the nation. 68% of Labour’s 2017 voters also named the NHS as their number one priority, and Labour retained a lead, albeit small, on the party best placed to protect the health service.

The NHS was not only an important election issue, but it united a party which was allergic about talking about Brexit and acted as a galvanising vehicle for activists to campaign upon, whilst gnawing at the Conservative’s traditional Achilles’ heel.

Given this context, it is surprising that to date the analysis of Labour’s defeat has not mentioned the sheer weakness of what Corbyn and the party thought was its strongest card: the NHS. It was, in all likelihood, the party’s only viable route to a credible election result. But it failed to shift the election’s narrative off Brexit, and it failed to mobilise traditional Labour voters in vast swathes of traditional Red Wall seats, nor attract new voters to the Labour column.

By the end of the election campaign, the Conservatives had drawn level with, or were ahead of, Labour on being the more trusted on the health service. For a party that has long held itself as the ‘party of the NHS’ it represented a seismic strategic failure for Labour. The Conservatives had learnt the lessons of 2017, when Labour had successfully introduced other issues to the campaign, including the NHS, and had spent the first months of Johnson’s premiership endlessly pledging an extra £20bn for the health service and, less creditably, fifty thousand new nurses and forty new hospitals.

Hours after the newly returned Prime Minister gave his speech from Downing Street, NHS England released grim figures on the state of the NHS. Every single one of the 118 major A&E units in England had failed to reach its four-hour waiting target. Labour’s much heralded four-hour waiting target has been all but scrapped by Matt Hancock. Cancer treatment times have not been hit since 2015, whilst waiting times for routine or elective surgery have not been hit since 2016. This bleak analysis laid bare not only the true state of the NHS, but Labour’s failure to capitalise on it during a winter election.

The NHS’ response to COVID-19 has significantly altered the debate since, but the truism from December remains; the new Labour leadership and the next Shadow Health Secretary must rebuild its reputation with the heath service, its patients and the life sciences industry as the party of the NHS. The “our NHS” and insert metric “to save the NHS” rhetoric must be jettisoned as pillars of the party’s campaigning if credibility is to be restored. NHS staff vote Conservative, and Conservative voters love the NHS too.

There are many hard lessons for Labour to learn from the 2019 election, but how it campaigns on the NHS must now surely be at the forefront.

David Talbot is a political consultant

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