Article published: Tuesday, September 13th 2011
Withington Liberal Democrat MP John Leech’s decision to vote in favour of the government’s controversial Health and Social Care Bill last week must have raised eyebrows among his constituents, considering his equally controversial history of healthcare campaigns.
The Bill, dubbed by many as “the end of the NHS as we know it”, has been denounced for effectively privatising the NHS. It passed through the Commons despite vocal opposition from the public and medical professionals and a complete lack of a mandate from either the Tories or the Liberal Democrats, neither of whom pledged to reform the NHS before the 2010 election. Indeed, David Cameron even promised there would be “no top-down reorganisations of the NHS”, an evident lie all the more excruciating since he cited the care his child received from NHS staff prior to his son’s death in 2008 as a reason why he would never touch it.
Leech is no less equivocal. Soon after his election in 2005 he found himself in hot water after focussing his election campaign on claims that the Christie, Manchester’s specialist cancer hospital, was in danger of being closed following a review, a claim he later repeated in his maiden speech to parliament. The head of Manchester’s Health Service stated that this was not the case and less than two months after his election it was revealed that the hospital was safe. A Lib Dem Councillor and one of Leech’s closest allies left the party one year later, calling the campaign “dishonest” and “scaremongering”.
At the time, Leech claimed that 60 doctors at the hospital signed a petition protesting against any planned closure. The text of the petition actually circulated did not claim that the hospital could or would be closed, even though Lib Dem election literature (not always noted for its veracity) claimed this was a possibility.
Funnily enough, 60 members of staff at the Christie are now being sacked as part of the funding cuts to the region’s medical services. On top of this 150 staff are being sent to work for a private company, HCA International, who will be opening a new private centre at the hospital. Not for nothing have the corporations swimming around the corpse of the NHS threateningly requested “a free hand with staff”, presumably because so many health workers across the country are opposed to the privatisation.
Leech’s only attempt to address the issue has been to point out that the Labour administration was hardly any better: “If the private sector involvement in the National Health Service is privatisation, it was Labour who privatised it.” Private sector involvement in the National Health Service is privatisation. Labour did privatise it. That soundbite was nowhere near as clever as Leech thought it was. As with the last government, his party’s hands are covered in blood.
Given this apparent inconsistency, could the principles that saw him rebel against his own party and their aristocratic seducers last December during the tuition fees debate actually be nonexistent, with an insincere, cynical pragmatism nesting in their place? His long history of campaigning on healthcare issues would suggest not. This May he attacked £31 million of waste in the care of people with muscle-wasting diseases who had to have emergency care rather than long-term specialist treatment, in June he had tea and strawberries with Geri Halliwell in support of a breast cancer charity, and this month he called on Health Committee Chair Councillor Eddy Newman to resign following the closure of Withington Walk-in Centre.
But as the head of the BMA pointed out, wealthy foreign nationals with heart conditions are going to be prioritised in the new-look NHS over people unfortunate enough to possess less economically viable illnesses. The poor in cities such as Manchester, which already has in parts the lowest life expectancy in England and Wales, will suffer as access to the best quality of care becomes more readily available for the rich. Doctors have warned that the service risks a return to the 1930s, while others have openly advocated resistance to the reform’s implementation.
Leech consciously crafts himself as a campaigner for public health and defender of the region’s hospitals but thanks to him, and to Parliament, his constituents who live in Old Moat will have very different healthcare provision than those who live in Didsbury. If he thought his tuition fees rebellion could hide the nature of his character, then he was wrong. As with his namesake, he has no backbone.