Election '97: The truth about health

Story behind Labour stunt; The NHS is what voters are talking about on the doorstep, while the parties trade insults and fantasy budgets. Today we ask: what's the real outlook?
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The Independent Online
It was a simple Labour stunt designed to demonstrate Tony Blair's popularity with former Conservative voters - but behind it lay a truly devastating critique of the disintegration of the National Health Service.

The Labour leader was taken by his spin doctors yesterday to 69-year- old Elsie Butler's home to "canvass" her as a potential switcher. In fact, she had already decided to vote Labour but the untold story behind her change of allegiance will cause Tory strategists nightmares - she was angry at the appalling treatment meted out to her sick husband, Douglas. Next Thursday, she says, is "payback time".

After Mr Blair had left her home in Morden, south London, unaware of her astonishing history, Mrs Butler told The Independent about the moment she lost faith in the Tories. For 30 years, she has been waging a battle against cancer; so has Mr Butler. They have each had their bowel and bladder removed. She has lost her womb and he has lost part of a lung.

Together, they have a unique view of three decades of NHS change. They say those 30 years represent a decline in patient care, culminating in Mrs Butler taking her husband from a filthy bed at the St Helier Hospital in Carshalton, south London, - the hospital where John Major was born - to nurse him at home.

"He had had his bladder removed and I saw him there in the hospital, lying in his own dirt, fading away and I vowed to get even," she said.

"I felt like Dirty Harry with his Magnum 45. I wanted to point it at John Major and say 'Make my day'.

"Well now my day has come and it's payback time."

The Butlers describe the devotion of doctors and nurses at the Royal Marsden Hospital and St Helier as "magnificent". But they say cutbacks and the internal market have resulted in a deterioration of standards and apparent shortages in staff.

"I have voted Tory since 1979 but I don't believe the NHS will survive five more years of them," said Mrs Butler. "Things are getting worse. When I first started getting treatment, things were fine. But now there are mixed sex wards, not enough beds, dreadful shortages of nurses and appalling food.

"The treatment is so degrading. Can you imagine what it's like to be changing your tubes and things and turn round to find that there's a male patient there watching you on your ward? Why do we need mixed-sex wards?"

Mrs Butler began having doubts about voting Conservative after Mr Butler's bladder operation five years ago.

"I was appalled," she said. "He hadn't even been washed. He was lying there in his own dirt, with tubes everywhere and the nurses were simply too short staffed to care for him properly.

"He was fading away. It broke my heart. I had to clean him myself. I don't mind that, but I shouldn't have to."

Mr Butler, 69, a former BT engineer who has always voted Labour, said: "They lined up a place for me in a hospice and, basically, I was expected to die. But Elsie insisted on taking me home and nursed me back to health. I owe my life to her. There must be thousands of people like us all over the country. Well, now we plan to get our own back."

The couple are now healthy and optimistic, thanks, they say to their surgeon, Christopher Jones, although they say they are no longer sent hospital appointments - "They think we're past it," said Mr Butler.

Mrs Butler's decision to vote Labour was made only three months ago after being persuaded by her husband to attend a meeting at the Burn Bullock pub in Mitcham, where Tony Blair was addressing an audience of Tory waverers.

"I gave him a hard time," she said. "But I emerged convinced. He's sincere and I think I can trust him. At least you know he believes in the NHS."

Oblivious to the Butlers' trials, Mr Blair left after sharing tea and biscuits with other switchers. After his departure, there was little doubt that his commitment to the NHS was sincere. Questions remain, however, over whether Labour can afford it.