Battle has now been joined in earnest for our general election in May, and it looks as though we're in for a very boring four months. So far the Conservatives have boomed that Labour is not to be trusted on the economy (which is perfectly true, but not in the way they mean) and Labour shrieks that the Tories are not to be trusted on the National Health Service (NHS) which is perfectly true by any definition - after all the Tories specifically promised in 2010 that the NHS was "safe in their hands" and that there would be "no top down reorganisation."
Whether the much publicised difficulties of the past week (a private firm pulling out of its contract to run a hospital, several hospitals unable to meet their four hour "waiting times" targets in their accident and emergency departments) are the result of the inappropriate and ill-timed top down re-organisation or the funding freeze when the demands on the service are increasing, or both, or something else, is for experts to argue. Whatever the reason(s) the fact remains that the NHS is not meeting our expectations, and the evidence is that "privatisation" is making it less rather than more effective.
Predictably Labour claims that the NHS is in "crisis." This is nonsense, typical of the hyperbolic campaigning style which puts people off politics. The truth is that the NHS is a highly efficient and cost-effective means of caring for the nation's health, but it is getting a bit frayed at the edges, partly because our expectations are increasing, and partly because people like me are living longer (a jolly good thing in my view) but tend to have an increasing number of "health issues" which we'd like dealt with.
Amid the furore Nick Clegg has come up with a balanced and reasonable proposal. In summary he suggests that we should increase the current funding of the NHS by £8bn in three stages by 2020-21 by:
- continuing each year the additional £2bn announced in the recent autumn statement for 2015-16;
- adding a further £1bn per year financed by (i) capping pension tax relief for the wealthiest (long overdue in my view), (ii) raising dividend tax to the level of income tax and, (iii) scrapping the "shares for rights " scheme intruded by the Tories, which apparently costs £100m a year);
- from 2017-18, increasing health spending in line with growth in the economy.
1. it not only admits that extra money is necessary, but also explains how it is to be raised, and
2. it acknowledges that funding for at least this part of the state is to increase along with the growth of the economy. This is in stark contrast to Tory proposals to continue cutting back the size of the state.
So well done, Nick, and continue to put forward balanced and costed proposals. The signs are that much of the media has now written us off as an irrelevance, but I am confident that if we avoid the shrillness of the others and are sensible with what we offer we shall gain a hearing. We may even reap an electoral reward.