To write the People’s History of the NHS, our project team are passionate about sharing our research, meeting people, and hearing your memories about how the NHS has changed over time. On Tuesday 16 February, the team attended a free public event at the Modern Records Centre in Coventry about ‘The NHS: Past and Future’. The speakers were Roberta Bivins, one of the principal investigators on our project and Anna Pollert, the chairperson of the South Warwickshire Keep Our NHS Public campaign.
Roberta opened the event, giving a fascinating paper about how health services have been described and used in party political campaigning since the early twentieth century. Anna spoke next, and argued that successive reforms had introduced privatisation into the NHS: for example by dividing the ‘purchasers’ and ‘providers’ of health care; enabling private companies to ‘bid’ to supply services; and introducing new layers of management and administration.
Putting these two talks side by side was, I think, really illuminating and interesting. It helped us to think about how historical changes shaped the current political context of the NHS. Roberta’s talk explored the precedents of how the Labour and Conservative Parties attack one another over healthcare today. Since the late 1940s, the Conservatives have argued that Labour endangers the NHS through wasteful and inefficient mismanagement. Conversely, every Labour Party manifesto since 1966 has labelled the Conservatives unsafe guardians of the NHS, and a party of the affluent. These arguments continue to shape the terms of political debate, in many ways.
Whilst election campaigning may often rely on simple messages, such as those above, the two speakers demonstrated that the roles of the Conservative and Labour parties in NHS reform had actually been complex and mixed. Anna, for example, highlighted that the Labour governments had, like the Conservatives, facilitated shifts towards privatisation. New Labour introduced private finance initiatives into the NHS, which are partnerships between the public and private sectors, and also started the plans to sell Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire to a private company. Roberta pointed out that NHS spending had been better protected historically by Labour governments, but that close examination of the figures also showed that NHS spending had not been particularly well protected by either party, particularly in times of economic downturn.
The speakers also both considered how members of the public had been drawn into the politics of the NHS, and become campaigners. There have long been campaigns against the closure of specific local hospitals or hospital departments, and also umbrella campaigns such as Doctors For the NHS (formerly the NHS Consultants Foundation, and formed in 1976), London Health Emergency (formed 1983), the NHS Support Federation (1989) and Keep Our NHS Public (2005). These campaign groups have used new and developing technologies – most recently the internet – to disseminate their messages widely. Anna showed us campaign videos created by activists and doctors, such as the critical documentary Sell Off. In another fascinating look at culture and NHS activism, Roberta also displayed critical graffiti which had been painted on to election campaign posters.
Whilst many people have engaged with the politics of the NHS, in various ways, we also discussed the question of why activism was not more widespread, given that everyone is a patient at some point in their lives, and affected by NHS reform. Anna stated that when she ran a stall for Keep Our NHS Public she was often shocked by how many people just walked past her without stopping. Anna felt that the majority of people did not understand the changes which were being made to the NHS, given the length, quantity and complexity of modern policy documents. Anna also questioned whether younger people especially had lost any sense of urgency about defending the universal health care system, and told us how her daughter had considered the idea of charging people a nominal £5 fee for a visit to their GP. Relatedly, Roberta questioned whether people from the UK, who had been ‘born in the NHS’, may feel complacent about the ongoing existence of this institution, because we are used to it always being there. By contrast, Roberta moved to the UK from America, making her very aware that the provision of nationalised healthcare is far from inevitable.
Building on this, we would love to hear your thoughts, memories and stories about politics, campaigning, and the NHS, either in the comments section below or through the ‘share your stories’ section of our website. Have you ever been involved in a campaign related to the NHS? Do you have any campaign-related posters, badges or other memorabilia? If you haven’t been involved in campaigning related to the NHS, why not? Is the NHS a key electoral issue for you? Do you remember any party promises about the NHS from previous elections, and whether they were met? We look forward to hearing from you!