Monday was a day of shame, the day they denationalised the NHS. Yet at the second reading of the Bill in the House of Commons the main line of defence of the increasingly isolated Andrew Lansley, who is clearly out of his depth, was that the Tories are only carrying on where Blair left off and completing the job he failed to finish. That is of course true inasmuch as New Labour converted NHS trusts into independent businesses (foundation trusts), introduced ISTCs (private treatment centres paid by public funds irrespective of the number of patients treated), gave NHS work to private hospitals and clinics and encouraged NHS patients to choose them, and developed HMO-style commissioning as in the US. But it hobbled the Labour response because there was clearly no Shadow Cabinet cover to give the obvious retort that these were Blair’s own pseudo-Tory policies never sanctioned by the Labour Party and that now we, the real Labour Party, are promulgating a very different, public NHS shorn of all its privatisation liabilities.
Labour is never going to win on the NHS, on the economy, on the City and the banks, on inequality, on welfare reform and a host of other issues until it repudiates the awful legacy of the Blair-Brown years that brought it down so low. Since 1997 New Labour lost 5 million votes, 4 million during Blair’s tenure. Yet the caution about moving on and replacing a failed reactionary project with a new progressive vision is palpable. The problem is partly the excessively tight control being exerted by the shadow Treasury team over all their colleagues’ initiatives, but mainly that Ed Miliband is hamstrung by a shadow cabinet where a large majority didn’t vote for him as their first-choice candidate. He didn’t run a slate in the elections whereas David Miliband and Ed Balls did.
Blairites are still arguing (as David Miliband’s speech yesterday in the NHS debate showed all too clearly) that the issue is not about whether there is reform (what a million sins are contained in that word!) or not, but rather whether it is good reform (i.e. what New Labour did in its term of office) or bad reform (i.e. what the Tories are now proposing) – even though the similarities and overlap far exceed the differences. But whether you can detect a smidgeon of divergence between New Labour and Tory policies on ‘modernising’ public services is not the point. The real point is that any genuine Labour policies are a world away from market fundamentalism, deregulated finance, indiscriminate privatisation of public services, fostering of inequality, and courting of Big Business, all of which both New Labour and the Tories agree on. The sooner we make that crystal clear, the sooner Labour’s poll ratings will surge.