People's History of the NHS

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  • 02
  • MAY

Elections time

by Mathew Thomson

We are coming in to election season. This week will see local council elections across much of England. Londoners will be voting for a new Mayor and for the London Assembly. The Scots will be voting the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood. The Welsh will be voting for the Welsh Assembly. The Northern Irish will be voting for their Assembly. Thrown in on top of this, there will be elections for Police and Crime Commissioners. It is a complexity that reflects an increasingly devolved system of government. We are yet to find ourselves voting for local NHS commissioners, but we are now seeing significant moves towards devolution in this area also, pioneered since April of this year in Manchester, and with talk of other areas of England to follow Manchester and the earlier devolution of NHS administration to the governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In such circumstances, it becomes increasingly difficult to generalise about the National Health Service, and we are aware that our People’s History needs to pay far more attention to the significance of devolution and difference in the four nations of the United Kingdom. The NHS unsurprisingly matters more as an issue in the upcoming elections to the national chambers than it does in the English local elections, where the NHS is still the responsibility of central government. National Health Action (NHA), a party set up in response to the Health and Social Care Act of 2012, argues that the NHS is in fact an issue that should be taken very seriously as we vote for county and city councillors. In particular, the NHA warns in relation to devolution that we are on the cusp of taking the N out of the NHS. Local council campaigns also often emphasise that local action is important in relation to the health of the local population, whether directly through the provision of a healthy environment, or indirectly through providing the housing, transport, and services needed to attract a staff to man local NHS facilities. Meanwhile, the UK Independence Party brings the NHS into its local campaigning by using it as an example for its claims that local services are put under strain by immigration. But in general terms, the issue of the NHS appears to have a low profile in the upcoming English elections. This is in striking contrast to the General Election, just a year ago. It is also in contrast to the high profile of the NHS in the media more generally, where ongoing concerns oabout the adequacy of funding, efforts to introduce a seven-day service, and the Junior Doctors’ strikes have contributed to keeping the issue on the front pages of the newspapers. So it is very possible that those who vote in the local elections will nevertheless be swayed by their feelings about the NHS. And certainly our initial research indicates that feelings about the NHS, often run strongest in relation to local communities and the protection of local services.

For this reason, we thought that this would be a good moment to turn the attention of our People’s History of the NHS to the role of party politics. We have a new Encyclopaedia entry on the subject of Party Political Manifestos. This looks back over the way that the two main political parties have presented their position on the NHS since the election of 1945. It draws 10 conclusions. These range from the shifting importance of the NHS in party politics, to the degree to which the positions of the two parties have differed. Taking the long view provides us with a fresh perspective on today’s party political debate. We also have a new Gallery of party political posters on the NHS. You may have already seen our gallery of posters on the politics of health before the NHS. The second gallery takes the story into the era of NHS itself. This striking visual culture offers further insight on changes over time.

What we now need is your stories, memories, and reflections about this party politics of the NHS. So please do take the opportunity to comment in response to the Encyclopaedia entry and the Galleries. We’d also welcome your comments, in response to this blog, about the local and national politics of the NHS.

Looking forward a little further still, there is of course one other upcoming election, and one that already dominates the media in a way that overshadows the local elections. On June 23rd we will be voting to Remain or Leave in the European Union. It has been fascinating to see over the last few weeks how even this election has turned to the issue of the NHS: both sides claiming that only their position will protect the future of the NHS. For those who recall the earlier 1975 European Referendum, we will be fascinated to hear about whether you saw any connection then between being in or out of Europe and being in or out of an NHS.

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