Jeremy Hunt and privatisation are no recipe for saving the NHS - but try telling the Blairites that

The appointment of the new Secretary of State for Health should be a warning for all; we must learn from our former mistakes before privatising our national institution.

Fact File
  • 64 The percentage of people who think that services like health and education should not be run as businesses
Related Topics

If the Tories wanted to tell opponents of NHS privatisation (that’s most of the country, by the way), to commit an obscene act on their own person, appointing Jeremy Hunt as Secretary of State for Health was a pretty effective means of delivering the message.

Here is a man who, throughout the Murdoch scandal, proved an instinctive champion of corporate power. A pamphlet he co-authored in 2005, Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party, called for the NHS to be denationalised and replaced with a national insurance model. It is even rumoured he attempted to remove the moving NHS tribute from the Olympics Opening Ceremony.

And it gets much, much worse. The new guardian of our health pushed for his constituency's own NHS Trust to be taken over by Virgin Care in a deal worth £650m. When Hunt was appointed, some mocked that he was about to hand the NHS over to Rupert Murdoch; it turns out Richard Branson is one likely beneficiary. If anyone was wondering what the future of the NHS looks like under this Government, look no further than the backyard of the Secretary of State for Health himself.

The Tories never had the courtesy to put the privatisation of our NHS to the electorate at the general election. Neither did they consult voters about plans unveiled in July 2011 to open virtually all public services to private companies. And there is good reason for this. Thatcher's children may be ideological zealots, but they are not stupid: they know there is no popular support for privatisation. As even Thatcher's own Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, once remarked, the NHS is “the closest thing the English have to a religion”.

A report published by the Fabian Society this week underlines just how entrenched opposition is to selling off our services. YouGov tested support for a number of arguments: overall, those in support of the state were significantly more popular than those against - 64 per cent were convinced that “services like health and education should not be run as businesses” because “they depend on the values and ethos of the public good”; just 17 per cent dissented. Despite the oft-repeated falsehood that Britain has run out of money, 48 per cent believed that, “despite recent economic problems, the UK is a rich country and can afford decent public services”.

When right-wing arguments were offered, they were soundly rejected. For example, just 29 per cent agreed that, “when the Government provides more than the basics it holds back businesses and stops the economy growing”. There was overwhelming agreement that “public services are essential for business to succeed and incomes to grow”, a solid rejection of the mantra that the public sector is somehow leeching off the real “wealth-creators”.

But what is so striking about the report - entitled No Right Turn - is that, above all, it poses a challenge to Labour. “Our conclusion is public opinion does not support calls by some for the Labour party to adopt a middle way on public service debates that cedes ground to the right,” argue report authors Natan Doron and Andrew Harrop.

It is a lesson the Continuity Blairites, still nestled in the Labour leadership, need to learn. Labour's opposition to the Tories' privatisation offensive remains hobbled because New Labour laid the foundations for it. A commercial directorate was set up in the Department of Health under Tony Blair; and privately run independent sector treatment centres were introduced by the last government. Hinchingbrooke became the first hospital to be taken over by a private firm last year, but the deal was kick-started by the Labour Government. Under New Labour, billions were wasted on overpaid private consultants in the civil service; air traffic control was privatised; and Gordon Brown forced through the disastrous Public Private Partnership on the London Underground.

The biggest privatisation disaster was undoubtedly the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), originally unveiled by John Major’s government but massively expanded under New Labour. Under PFI, private contractors pay for construction costs, leasing the finished project to the public sector for up to 30 years. The attraction was a financial con: PFI contracts take borrowing off the Government’s public sector balance sheet. They are expensive, not least because of the costly lawyers and consultants involved in the contracts, and because borrowing is twice as expensive for the private sector as it is for the Government.

The long-term cost to the public purse is shocking. Not long after the last election, it was reported that the NHS would end up paying £65bn to private contractors for hospital building, even though completion cost just £11.3bn. Back in May, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee found that “the current model of PFI is unsustainable”, because the contracting process was so expensive, and the risk was transferred to the public sector even as investors enjoyed high returns - 22 NHS trusts reportedly face bankruptcy after being saddled with PFI debts.

If Labour is to mount a credible opposition to Tory privatisation, it needs to draw a thick line under its own past. In his speech to the Policy Network think-tank last week, Ed Miliband acknowledged that New Labour had accepted the political consensus established by Margaret Thatcher's government. “The ideas of the last three decades will not solve the central economic challenges we face,” he said. “Instead we need a new agenda.” It has yet to be fleshed out, but a rejection of the dismantling of our public services must be at its heart.

Part of the challenge is that advocates of privatisation stole words such as “reform” and “modernisation”. Their opponents could be dismissed as conservatives, anti-reformers, dinosaurs, and so on. But an alternative to New Labour and Tory privatisation does not have to mean top-down, bureaucratic statism. That was a model pioneered in post-war Britain by that stalwart of the Old Labour Right and grandfather to Peter Mandelson, Herbert Morrison.

There is another model: putting services under the democratic control of both users and workers. For example, if our railways were back under public ownership - as polls show most voters, including Tories, want - elected representatives of passengers and rail workers could bureaucratic statism.

As the recent failure of G4S to provide security at the Olympics underlined, the “private is best” dogma is kaput. But the era of failed free-market fundamentalism will not end unless Labour rejects its own history of privatisation. A break with the past is not just necessary - it would be popular, too.

Twitter: @OwenJones84

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Data Administrator

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of this mu...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - £40,000 - £70,000 OTE

£40000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: (Senior) IT Business Analyst - London - European projects

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful & reputable global business is l...

Recruitment Genius: Engineering Project Manager

£35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Marina Litvinenko, the widow of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, leaves the High Court after the opening of the inquiry into his death  

Laying the blame for Litvinenko’s death at Putin’s door is an orthodoxy that needs challenging

Mary Dejevsky
Greece's new Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and Rena Dourou, the prefect of Athens, are both Essex Alumni  

The success of Syriza in Greece has been driven by Marxism, populism and yes — Essex University

David Howarth
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness