Lib Dems should support the NHS reforms to secure its long term future

March 3, 2012 12:05 PM
By Andrew Tennant in Liberal Democrat Voice

Andrew TennantListen to the Labour spin, the media furore, or the special interests in the healthcare unions, and you'd think that the Health and Social Care Bill had been crafted by the evil Tories and naive Lib Dems to maliciously snatch all hope of critically needed health and hospital care from the poor and vulnerable, dooming great swathes of the population to lives of miserable illness and suffering, all to help the 'rich and profiteering' private healthcare companies milk every last penny and drop of human decency out of society.

Left leaning voters are angry - indeed opinion polls show that a majority of voters are fearful and opposed to the government's NHS reforms. Leading Lib Dem politicians from Simon Hughes to Tim Farron, to the Clegg -Williams letter circulated to party members, and jumped on by the Bill's opponents, have been lining up to appear against the government's proposals and to be concerned and critical about the dangers of competition.

Some in the party no doubt see now as a chance to make the headlines, and start a recovery amongst the tactical and protest voters we've had support from in past elections. This is understandable politics, but, I believe, potentially damaging both to the party's credibility and to the country.

I worry because the spin and anti-Bill protestations are false - the reality somewhat different, the threats to the NHS more challenging to accept and hard to fix. Facing up to and solving these challenges is an important obligation of a responsible government, and what I would expect of the Lib Dem government that I voted for.

Recent reviews and research, including under the previous government, have shown that, unreformed, the prognosis for the NHS, is not too healthy - a smaller economy following the financial crisis still stubbornly refusing to grow, an ageing population, an expensive and draining management bureaucracy, and the stagnancy and declining return of a complacent provider monopoly ever more demanding of ever greater funds. Barely heard for all the noise and hyperbole, these are the real threats to our health service. The reality few want to face is that staying the same means accepting a future of foreseeable and terminal decline. Defending the NHS means accepting the need for change.

The principles at the heart of the government's proposed reforms are Liberal ones - of increasing transparency and information, of devolving power to as local a level as possible, of challenging monopoly, of free trade without barriers to everyone's benefit, and of universal access and protecting the vulnerable.

The government wants you, and your doctor, to have options and choice about what treatment you want to pursue; for providers (both public and private) to compete to offer services, for your doctor to advise and help you choose whichever service and whichever provider will offer you the best service and best potential health outcomes achievable, and for the state to pick up the tab - getting more out of the budget by enabling innovation and efficiency, ensuring you (and everyone else) can get the quality care you want and need, not just now, but for the foreseeable future.
So Lib Dems should embrace the Bill and its stubborn focus on long term necessity at the expense of short term pain. Lib Dems should support the core Liberal principles and see through our arguments made over the last two years. Lib Dems in the Commons and in the Lords should live up to the high standards we expect of them when voting.
Abandoning these principles, the logic and evidence, dooming the NHS to predictable failure, simply for headlines and potential short term political advantage - that would be unforgivably disappointing. As I said to Tim Farron's earlier this week - I'd be dismayed. And I suspect that those reformers who've stuck by us so far, or who were considering giving us their vote, might not be too impressed either.

* Andrew Tennant is a Lib Dem member in Charnwood, Leicestershire.