Trio of appointments will shape Labour’s health policy under Corbyn - Guest Blog from Incisive Health

Ben Nunn and Mike Birtwistle, from Incisive Health, look at the key figures in the Shadow Cabinet who will determine where Labour goes on health.

The dust hasn’t yet settled on the rather chaotic process to appoint Jeremy Corbyn’s first Shadow Cabinet. Rows about the lack of gender balance in the top appointments; controversy about the identity, views and past of the Shadow Chancellor; and discussion of who is missing from the line up have overshadowed analysis about what the appointments that have been made will mean. Yet, as members of the Shadow Cabinet get to grips with their briefs as well as the new reality in the Labour Party, it is worth examining a trio who will shape Labour’s policy on health and care under Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour has a historic lead in terms of public perceptions on the NHS; for Corbyn to have any chance of coming close in 2020 he will need to sustain and build on this. Labour will also need to achieve more than it did in 2015, when a consistent lead on the issue did not translate itself into electoral success.

However, opportunities will present themselves and likely sooner rather than later. There is every chance that the Department of Health will blow its budget in 2015/16 and it is difficult to see how correcting this will be possible without damaging performance and quality. Labour’s team would well advised to avoid talk about ‘weaponising’ the NHS, but will need to be capable of landing sustained political blows.

It is hard to believe, but Labour has still not committed to matching the Conservatives’ £8 billion pledge. An early task for the new team will be to neutralise this charge from the Government benches more successfully than the Opposition did in the 2010 Parliament – and forge good relationships with John McDonnell and Seema Malhorta.

But who will lead the charge for Labour on health and how will their personal views shape their party’s policy?

Heidi Alexander, Shadow Secretary of State for Health

Heidi Alexander’s first term in Parliament was defined by the battle to ‘save’ Lewisham Hospital, earning her national profile and political plaudits. In this respect there are intriguing parallels with Jeremy Hunt, who cut his teeth during the battle to ‘save’ the Royal Surrey in his constituency. 

With this background, don’t expect Ms Alexander to shy away from defending local hospitals, even when the system is arguing that reconfiguration is necessary; she is likely to be far less tolerant of calls for new models of care involving the downgrading of hospitals than either Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall.

Her time in local government will also mean that she is aware of the impact that cuts in care and public budgets can have on NHS services and will make her receptive to arguments for closer involvement of local authorities in shaping health services.

An area of difference with the Burnham years is likely to be on issues of quality and safety. Andy Burnham never managed to fully move on from rows about Mid Staffs. Expect Alexander to take a different approach, conscious that accusations about putting the service before safety have undermined Labour’s NHS ‘offer.’ The financial pressures facing the NHS, the cancellation of safe staffing guidance and Monitor’s instructions to providers to focus on finance first may well provide a platform to do this. However, Hunt will not surrender ground on safety without a political fight.

It will be intriguing to see how differences in emphasis on the private sector develop. Alexander has already been more emollient about the private sector than her leader (or indeed her predecessor). Whether this stance endures remains to be seen.

Finally, we can expect a change in tone. Clashes between Hunt and Burnham were rarely anything other than heated. How Alexander approaches health debates will be an interesting test of Labour’s new politics.

Luciana Berger, Shadow Mental Health Minister

Luciana Berger’s experience on health will be prized as Labour tries to take on one of the longest serving health secretaries. Having already worked the mental health brief (albeit at a more junior role), she will be hoping to make an immediate impact. Her role apparently spans departments, which is never an easy task. Look for her to seek to score some early points on home turf.

Her appointment to the Shadow Cabinet comes on the back of her being one of the few junior health spokespeople to make a name for herself in the last Parliament, regularly securing coverage on mental health as well as claiming credit for legislative progress on smoking in cars as well as on plain packaging. She has certainly won friends in the media, who will be following her progress closely.

Fiercely ambitious, Berger will not want this appointment to be the summit of her political career. She will be aware that the precedent of the last double appointment to the Shadow Cabinet on health was not an altogether happy one, with Liz Kendall finding it difficult to carve out an independent position for herself. How the relationship between her and Alexander develops will go a long way towards shaping the dynamics of the health team.

Jon Trickett, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Although not in a specific health role, Jon Trickett can be expected to help shape the context for Labour’s health policy. A close advisor to Gordon Brown, then Ed Miliband and now Jeremy Corbyn, this is nonetheless Trickett’s first frontline Shadow Cabinet position.

He assumes a significant portfolio, with not only responsibility for policies on local government (and therefore public health expenditure), but also for shaping Labour’s policy on democratic renewal. This will include developing Labour’s answer to the Northern Powerhouse and will therefore have a significant influence on any policy on health devolution or integration.

A fitness fanatic who played a big role in promoting exercise referral schemes in the early 2000s and in reestablishing the Tour of Britain cycling race, Trickett has frontline local authority experience, having served as Leader of Leeds City Council until his election to Parliament in 1996.

He is widely credited with helping orchestrate efforts to get Corbyn on the leadership ballot and was a key advisor on efforts to develop a distinctive policy on the north of England. He will likely have the ear of the new Leader and so should have the attention of the new health team as well.

Jeremy Corbyn had notably warm words for Andy Burnham’s health policy in his acceptance speech. The extent to which this approach endures is now in the hands of three new appointments around a very different Shadow Cabinet table.


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