4 November 2019

The Tories must not rise to Labour’s ‘privatisation’ bait


Another day, another bit of overblown NHS rhetoric from Labour. This time it was John McDonnell telling Andrew Marr that his party would “get rid of all privatisation inside the NHS” (you can watch the clip here).

This is, of course, patently absurd. In a well-argued piece today City AM’s Christian May rightly points out that private companies – from GPs to hospices, elective surgery, cleaning and catering – are already integral to the NHS. And what about all the stuff the NHS buys from outside providers? As the always pithy Mark Littlewood asks (with just a hint of sarcasm): “Presumably, the NHS will be obliged to source their own paper from their own forests, milk their state-owned herd of cows and build their own computers?”

Leaving aside those arguments, the idea that the health service has been overrun by privatisation since the Conservatives got into government is, as I wrote for CapX last year, simply false. Equally, about a third of what the NHS does spend on outside providers goes not to the Evil Corporations of Labour’s fantasies, but voluntary organisations and local authorities.

For Tory MPs and canvassers, engaging on the detail of this kind of thing is tempting but probably counter-productive. No amount of tight argumentation or statistical evidence is going to stop Labour claiming the Tories want to shut down Our Precious NHS and sell it to the highest bidder. It’s a cultural meme as old as the NHS itself, with little connection to the reality of policymaking. Though if you are faced with that particular line of argument down the Dog and Duck, you could always remind your opposite number that, as our editor-in-chief Robert Colvile has noted: “The NHS has been in existence for 70 years, and the Conservatives have been in power for 43 of them: if they have a secret plan to privatise it, it’s not a very good one.”

Equally, calling McDonnell and Corbyn swivel-eyed ideologues, though undoubtedly true, is probably not going to be particularly helpful. Most voters do not regard a fully public NHS as a particularly extreme ideological position.

Trying to pick apart the detail also misses a crucial point. McDonnell’s ‘end privatisation’ schtick is not really a policy proposal, it’s election bait. Bait in both senses: it rouses Labour activists who see any private involvement in the NHS as evil profiteering. But more importantly, it goads the Tories to come out and fight on a battlefield where Labour feel they hold the high ground.

The same goes for Labour’s recent interest in billionaires; it’s cathartic for Labour supporters to attack rich bogemen, and it entices the Tories into defending them. ‘Look, see, there they go defending the interests of the elite…’.

What should the response be?

Simply ignoring Labour’s attack lines would be a bad idea. People are rightly concerned about healthcare, and Boris Johnson cannot simply leave his flank exposed, even if he would rather spend the election talking about his Brexit deal. Thankfully, the NHS has been front and centre of the Tory message since the party’s conference, along with more money for schools and police. Frankly, those who are concerned about this apparent expansion of the state can hold their nose if it means delivering the country from Jeremy Corbyn.

At the moment the Conservatives seem to me to have the right strategy, which is to simply repeat that the NHS is ‘Not For Sale’ and promise they will support the health service with extra cash. Another effective riposte might be that Labour will simply mire us in another year of faffing around with Brexit, meaning public services will not get the attention they deserve.

Though admittedly not a very high bar, the early signs are that the Tories will have a much better campaign than in 2017.

Above all they must avoid repeating the mistake of underestimating their opponents. When John McDonnell throws out lines about greedy billionaires and profiteering private companies, these are not just the ravings of a leftwing tubthumper, but carefully assembled boobytraps for his opponents – the Tories must avoid them at all costs.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX