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Guest editorial Monday 10 October 2011: Farewell John Healey

In this guest editorial, Irwin Brown of the Socialist Health Association offers his vote of thanks to former shadow health secretary John Healey, whose standing down from the role became public last week.

Sadly for our NHS, John Healey has chosen to do other things.  For what it’s worth, many on the inside know he did an excellent job and believe he would have stayed in his post.  


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When Mr Lansley’s Liberation began, few saw the true intent and the dangers. The Lib Dems are now getting some credit for opposition - but they were all in the front row of supporting the Bill when it came out.

For months, Labour led the opposition as (virtually) a lone voice. Behind the scenes, alliances were made; arguments deployed; evidence collected; friends supported.  As history shows, the Bill was fought to an unprecedented halt.

During the first proper examination of the Bill in the Commons Bill Committee, the Labour team exposed its flaws and weaknesses despite the Coalition Ministers denying the need for change at every stage.

Losing votes, winning arguments
Labour lost the votes, thanks to the LibDems, but won the arguments.

Some on the fringes wanted a repudiation of Labour’s record, wanted barricade storming outright opposition; some even wanted a whole new set of alternative policies – none of which was ever going to happen.

Instead John, and the excellent team that he formed and supported, worked alongside the think-tanks, the Colleges, the various NHS bodies and the trade unions and others to ensure the right messages were put over, winning over the doubters and winning the arguments.  The reality was accepted; that arguments were more likely to have persuasive force if they came from inside the NHS rather than from Labour politicians.

The strategy from day one succeeded.  When John began in the job, the Tories were level in the opinion polls with Labour in terms of the NHS; now they are miles behind.  All the years of Tory efforts to detoxify their reputation on the NHS blown away; lukewarm welcome for the approach replaced by opposition across the NHS.

The initial waffle about clinicians and patients was changed to meaningful arguments about the role of the Secretary of State and the changes to make our NHS into a full-blown market.  The cosy agreement in the coalition with LibDem Ministers signing the original Bill was replaced by the LibDem conference demanding changes and Clegg (who signed the Bill) claiming he had stopped it!!  

At every stage, John Healey highlighted the real issues confronting the NHS. Cuts in funding, increasing waits and restrictions on access were highlighted and pinned on the Tories and their reckless and costly reorganisation.  Real issues that affect patients.

Whilst John may not have had the claimed technical forensic knowledge of NHS minutia of Lansley, he had something far better. He had an instinctive and genuine understanding of what our NHS is for, its values and its ethos. He had natural rapport on that level with those who work in the NHS and who make it the genuine world-class service it (mostly) is.

As John acknowledged somewhat poignantly in his Conference speech, his approach of encouraging others to make Labour’s arguments for them worked - but meant Labour did not always get the credit.

But it did work. The struggle against this dreadful Bill continues in the Lords - and another achievement of John was to forge a team across both Houses; so the Lords team will be ready and able to continue the arguments building on the work already done in the Commons.

Good luck John, and thanks.