Labour Deletes ‘The NHS Is Not for Sale’ From Its Manifesto

The hand of Wes Streeting?

by Rivkah Brown

12 June 2024

Wes Streeting at a Labour general election campaign event in Worcester, Worcestershire, May 2024. Maja Smiejkowska/Reuters

Labour has removed the phrase “the NHS is not for sale” from its manifesto, which it is due to launch on Thursday.

It has replaced the phrase – which was officially agreed upon at the party’s conference in October, and can be found in the party’s national policy forum document – with the much looser commitment that “the NHS will always be publicly owned and publicly funded”.

The question is: how much?

The phrase appears on page 68 of Labour’s National Policy Forum’s final policy document, the basis for the manifesto agreed at party conference in October.

Labour has already said any national health service it runs will rely heavily on the beneficence of private health companies. Soon-to-be health secretary Wes Streeting already does.

Since January last year, Streeting has taken around £175,000 in donations from donors linked to the private healthcare sector. These include John Hearn, a man with an estimated half a billion dollars invested in America’s largest health insurer, UnitedHealth. Via its UK subsidiary Optum, UnitedHealth supplies the NHS with GP prescribing software and general data analytics services.

Streeting has said he would “hold the door wide open” for private-sector “entrepreneurs that are coming up with cutting-edge treatments and technologies”. He has also said that he would use private hospitals to reduce the NHS backlog, writing in the Sun in April that “middle-class lefties” would not get in the way of his plans.

New Labour successfully slashed waiting times but also massively increased health spending in real terms, giving the NHS an additional 7% each year. Streeting, by contrast, has said that there will be no new money for the health service unless it undergoes “major surgery”, including increasing its use of private providers.

While Streeting insists that “NHS privatisation could not be further from my aims”, many have interpreted his repeated references to “reform” as a euphemism for privatisation. “When it comes to reform, I mean, I’m certainly not against it,” Greater Manchester mayor and former health secretary Andy Burnham told the i podcast in November, “but I would caution against a reform with the connotations that it had in the last Labour government. Sometimes people saw that as a byword for outsourcing or fragmentation of the system.”

As well as upping central government funding, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown accelerated the privatisation of the health service, setting the stage for its present disintegration. New Labour massively expanded the private finance initiative (PFI) scheme first introduced by John Major in 1992, inviting private companies to front the costs for new health infrastructure. Though the scheme was discontinued in 2018 after the collapse of Carillion, it continues to financially ruin NHS trusts: a Guardian analysis from 2022 found that 101 trusts owed roughly £50bn in future PFI payments.

Health campaigners expressed to Novara Media serious concern about the signals Streeting was sending with the manifesto edit.

“What Wes Streeting and the Labour party are refusing to admit is that private health providers rely on NHS staff in order to function. So these companies are directly draining capacity away from our public health service, and raking in millions of profit in the process,” Hope Worsdale, head of communications at the patient-led campaigning group Just Treatment told Novara Media.

She added: “For too long politicians have prioritised corporate profits over public healthcare, and indeed many of them – Wes Streeting included – have accepted funding from donors linked to private healthcare. It’s time for politicians across the board to cut these shady ties and instead commit to reversing the damaging agenda of NHS outsourcing.”

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.

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