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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Voting with the NHS in mind: the election and public services

​​​​​​​Dr Nadia Masood explores the role the NHS played in the election campaign and warns the new government that the status quo on public services cannot continue

Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the birth of the National Health Service. The Conservative party had initially opposed its formation, favouring an insurance-based system, and when they took over power just a few years after its formation they called for an enquiry to examine the financial efficiency of the NHS.  They discovered that the now adored National Health Service, paid for by taxes, was functioning efficiently, cost-effectively and deserved further funding.  The NHS was here to stay.

The NHS was rated as the top issue for British voters prior to this recent general election. Despite the rapid introduction of prescription and dental charges, and the steady increase in private sector involvement, it has upheld its founding principles. In doing so, it has become a symbol of social equality in Britain that extends far beyond the right to access good healthcare regardless of wealth. 

As soon as the general election was announced in April of this year, droves of people took to social media urging followers to seize the opportunity that lay before them and protect these endangered principles. Many highlighted that the NHS has particularly suffered under the government austerity programme that has plagued Britain for 7 years. If even the NHS could not survive austerity, what would that mean for society as a whole?

The Conservative Party’s pre-election pledges for the NHS were predictably wooly with figures seemingly plucked from thin air. They promised extra staff but failed to clarify where they would come from, or address the causes of staffing gaps. They promised the lowest level of funding to the NHS out of all the main parties - far less than it needs - while continuing to guarantee extended 7-day services – neglecting the simple fact that increased supply needs to be matched with increased investment. Indeed, the Tories time in power has seen some of the worst financial crises in the NHS’s history, as well as crises in patient care and staff unrest.

Last year junior doctors like myself staged a full walk-out for the first time in NHS history to oppose contract reforms designed to spread our workforce dangerously thin without adding more doctors to the mix. Frustrated by years of decline in the quality of care we could provide, being commanded to do more with less by an out-of-touch Health Secretary was the final straw. More recently, nurses across the country voted in favour of a strike ballot over NHS pay caps. But only now, perhaps spooked by losing 12,000 votes in his constituency to Dr Louise Irvine­ - a GP and avid NHS campaigner - has the newly re-elected Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt stated he is “sympathetic” and willing to discuss ending the pay restraint that has haunted NHS staff for seven years. These words come too late for many, and seem empty to most.

In comparison, pledges from The Labour Party before the election included safe staffing laws and an end to the pay restraint and bursary cuts that had forced nurses to seek charity from food banks. These pledges communicated to frontline workers that their concerns had been heard and action would be taken.

The differences in these pre-election pledges are sure to have influenced both public sector workers and the public who rely on the NHS. The surge in young voters also played a significant role; a YouGov poll indicated the majority of these young voters had chosen Labour. So-called ‘millennials’ have been repeatedly criticised and even blamed for many problems in today’s society. This result was a stark reminder to those critics, and political leaders, that the youth are the future, and power ultimately lies with the people. As frontline staff took to social media unveiling the realities of the conditions they were being forced to work in, there is no doubt in my mind that social media campaigning had a huge part to play in influencing voting decisions, providing real answers to voters’ concerns about the future they face in this country. 

Mainstream media campaigners and politicians often fail to identify with voters in the way that ordinary frontline staff and other service users do. These people make extraordinary advocates for the public who rely on their services every day. As the country faces an increasingly uncertain and unstable future, this election result has taught us that the power to influence how our society is governed lies not just with the administration, but those campaigners who speak truth to power about the NHS and other public services.

While it remains to be seen whether the Health Secretary’s commitment to review the issue of pay restraint for NHS staff amounts to anything substantial, it is unlikely that this commitment would have been made had his party secured the landslide victory they expected. It is certainly worth sustained campaigning to force a reconsideration of other controversial decisions concerning the NHS, and if the Conservative Party are keen to keep the public onside and remain in government, they would do well to respond.

The election result signifies an era of change - it appears that the public are increasingly unconvinced by the neoliberal ideology that has pervaded British politics for years and form the basis of the economic policies of the Conservative Party. The people have given our current government another chance, and now instead of forming alliances that threaten national security in a desperate attempt to cling to power, they must find a way to re-engage with their public.  

This election result has sent them a clear message about the NHS - change your ways and heal our public services, or we will take your power away from you.

Dr Nadia Masood is an anaesthetic registrar in London and a junior doctor campaigner. She tweets @n4di4_m