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What Does This General Election Need? An Actual Debate On Policy

11/05/2017 11:47
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Now that the official campaign for the 'Brexit election' has begun, the main parties have already blitzed the media with their positions on Brexit, and the Labour front bench have been doing the rounds outlining their policies for Britain's public services. A cynic could argue that this is a welcome distraction from the party's take on Brexit - which is doomed to continue in a confused cycle of misery for the foreseeable future - but barring the disastrous outing of the Shadow Home Secretary last week, they've done pretty well at tackling other policy areas so far.

The Shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, is a case in point. A former adviser to Gordon Brown and MP for Leicester South, Ashworth pinned his colours to the mast with his key NHS policies: lifting the 1% pay cap for NHS staff; reintroducing bursaries and scrapping tuition fees for student nurses and midwives; and implementing tougher rules to ensure safe staffing levels in NHS settings. He's gone a step further now and announced that Labour would freeze progress of Sustainability and Transformation Plans (or Partnerships, depending on how closely you paid attention to the NHS's recent review of the Five Year Forward View). This effectively commits Labour to resisting all hospital closures proposed by the plans so far, promising that a new NHS body (NHS Excellence) will work in collaboration with local communities to take these decisions in future.

The political rationale driving Labour's STP stance is understandable. The lack of transparency around STPs has been lamentable, drawn the ire of healthcare professionals, and helped to fuel speculation that they are vehicles for Conservative-led cuts. Similarly, there is a consensus that five-year targets around demand reduction were designed with the electoral cycle in mind, and are deeply unrealistic without substantially increased funding and delivery deadlines.

However, this does not justify scrapping the plans altogether as Labour suggests. The aims behind them, to move services into the community and focus on preventative healthcare, have been generally supported across the sector. The King's Fund even called STPs "the best hope for the NHS" and said the Government should fully support them. By announcing this STP policy and going against a great deal of wisdom from within the health sector, Ashworth is pandering to Labour's faithful supporters who hold blanket opposition to Conservative health policies, rather than pursuing balanced, logical policy. It does not contribute to the measured debate needed on how to make STPs work, in order to fulfil on the promises of the NHS's Five Year Forward View.

As a policy announcement, this effort from Labour still looks acceptable when compared to the tautology of "Strong and Stable" Conservative election slogans. With a 20-point lead in the polls, the Tories appear to have decided to take no unnecessary risks in their policy announcements, and confined responsibility for the few statements which have caught the headlines to Theresa May. What coverage have we seen from government ministers in recent days? Where has Justine Greening been to counter simultaneous announcements from Labour and the Lib Dems on education policy?

It has already become apparent that Theresa May's restrictive campaigning style is not gaining her favour with the press or pundits, and Labour have so far done a decent job in differentiating themselves from the Conservatives in this respect. Politico's detailed analysis of the Conservative campaign team is quite right to point to their "signs of vulnerability" on policy issues and question what impact "No. 10's control-freakery" will have. And questions can certainly be raised on why the publication of the Conservative manifesto was delayed - originally expected on 8th May - by at least a week.

This stranglehold that the PM and her staff have exhibited on the campaign trail could well be the deciding factor between a comprehensive or underwhelming victory for Theresa May. Much will depend on whether the Conservative manifesto offers credible new ideas or simply repeats the Lynton Crosby textbook. If Labour carry on hitting the airwaves on everyday issues, people who are sick to the back of teeth of hearing about Brexit might perk up and listen. Given this opportunity, the opposition should ensure their approach to policy making is sensible, no matter how rushed it has had to be.

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