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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8 Responses to “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”

  1. Anne says:

    There will be an investigation into the government’s handling of Covid – we already know that there has been big mistakes – lock down too late, not enough PPE etc.
    What about the extra £350 million promised when we left the EU – will that come to fruition? Will the extra doctors, nurses, practitioners, physios be recruited? Was it a great idea to make nurses pay for their training – recruitment has certainly dropped since this change. Will the new hospitals promised be built. There will have to be an analysis of the Tories management of the NHS.
    The NHS is a large organisation which has gone through many changes since it’s inception – people living longer with more complex health needs, complex surgery, change from hospital to more community care. Covid has also brought change – consultations on the phone, but it has also brought a massive waiting list of patients – how to reduce this waiting list will be a big challenge.
    Labour has to produce plans for the NHS, as well as for social care.

  2. Alf says:

    Labour will probably sell off what’s left of the NHS now that they”ve gone back to just being Tory-lite.

  3. John P Reid says:

    Regarding labour feeling being more popular than the Tories in the NHS wins elections
    In 2010 labour was more popular than the Tories on crime but little else

    Labour re writes history the bulking of nurses. By union bosses During the winter of discontent
    The Tories spending more in the NHS with McMillan snd heath compared to
    TheWilson Callaghan governments

    The
    Union barons threatened to sack nurses who refused to strike in 79wasnt pro the NHS

    And Tafias right on the other thread
    And the polls won’t be changing any time soon

  4. John P Reid says:

    In July 2016 Teresa Mays praising of multi culturalism when she gave her speech on becoming PM blaming the yuppification of areas as citizens of nowhere Destroying working class communities Was similar to Paul emberys rootless cosmopolitan view of the middle class causing price rises in inner London

  5. Tafia says:

    Anne, the government followed SAGEs advice on the lockdown, as the minutes of the SAGE meetings show. Even in mid-March the overwhelming majority of SAGE were opposed to implementing lockdown at that point.

    Even when government did implement it a week later, a substantial minority of SAGE were still opposed.

    Have a little think about the ramifications of that. All an inquiry can say is government shouldn’t have listened to experts.

  6. Tafia says:

    Anne, The NHS is not a large organisation anymore. It doesnt exist.

    There are four NHSs – NHS England, NHS Scotland, NHS Wales and NHS N Ireland. Three of those are none of Westminsters business – if an MP asks about one of those in the House, the Speaker strikes it straight away. Not even the Secretary of State is allowed to interfere in the devolved three. They have different staff contracts ( remember the junior Doctors dispute? It was oy in England), different funding methods, different structural organisation (their are no PCTs in Wales for example). They offer different drugs from each other and even different treatments. They have different targets, calculated in a different way. None of that can be reversed without reversing devolution – and that is not going to happen.

    Soon, NHS Manchester will fully devolve from NHS England ( and Mayor Burnham will become a province governor in all but name), and plans are afoot for Merseyside to do something similar along with Greater London.

    And you are supposed to know all this because its basic.

  7. Tafia says:

    John, part of the problem is we dont live in a multi-cultural society. That is a middleclass fantasy based on middleclass beliefs and middleclass experiences. Most people are not middleclass they are working class and their experience isn’t multi-culturalism, it’s a poisonous alternative reality known as parallel-culturalism, which deluded Guardianistas and incapable inept middleclass politicians have not only allowed to develop but actively tried to stop anything being done about it and refuse point blank to acknowledge the result of their ineptitude – such as mass child rape.

  8. Tafia says:

    This is SAGE advice just prior to lockdown.

    The government followed the SAGE advice at the time at each stage. SAGE is a large group and although you may get a handful at the extreme edges, the government follows the consensus opinion.

    SAGE scientists unanimously opposed Covid suppression measures as late as mid-march.

    A BBC interview with Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries from 10 March, fervently disagreeing with calls for a shutdown , saying the Government’s response is “founded entirely on scientific advice”.
    https://twitter.com/i/status/1237310362992685057

    The Minutes of the SAGE meeting of 13th March.
    https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/888783/S0383_Fifteenth_SAGE_meeting_on_Wuhan_Coronavirus__Covid-19__.pdf
    “SAGE was unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress spread of Covid19 will cause a second peak. SAGE advises that it is a near certainty that countries such as China, where heavy suppression is underway, will experience a second peak once measures are relaxed.”

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