After Wolf Hall, political 'Bring up the Bodies'

The general election will provide a fitting sequel to the BBC's Wolf Hall, as politicians adopt a strategy of 'bring up the bodies' - the old arguments of past NHS debates.

Being partisan about health is a risky election strategy, argues Mathew Shearman
Being partisan about health is a risky election strategy, argues Mathew Shearman
Recent polling indicates that health will be at the centre of the next election. January’s Ipsos Mori polling found 45 per cent of the population suggesting that it was the main issue facing the UK.  

There are also myriad complex issues that the next Government will need to address. 

Yet the NHS is at risk of becoming a token pledge, instead of the cornerstone of a new agenda under the next Government.

Labour’s self-confessed ‘weaponising’ of the NHS has largely fallen back on the old watchwords of ‘saving the NHS’ by addressing the 'funding crisis', and ensuring 'more nurses, more GPs’ rather than any clear sense of reframing the debate toward the patient. 

Its core political position remains to repeal the Health and Social Care Act brought in under the last Government.

Labour is no longer the opposition of 1997. 

Waiting time incentives and addressing chronic underfunding are no longer sufficient policy solutions to lead into the next election. 

Nor can astute politicking from the current Government remove health from the electoral playing field.

A raft of recent initiatives, including standardised packaging of cigarettes and funding for NHS England’s Five Year Forward Review, reflect Conservative attempts to move health away from party-political debate.

Together these strategies present a challenging environment for translating patients’ concerns on the long-term future of the NHS into firm policy commitments. 

To cut through the noise, a broad approach, bringing together patients with other partners in an open and honest approach to all policymakers, may provide a clearer strategy in making the case for a particular change.

In an election that seems destined to end in a hung Parliament (a Populous poll suggests it is a 95.2 per cent likelihood), it may prove a risky strategy to approach health reform from a too-partisan perspective. 

The fine electoral balance could shift away from initiatives as soon as they begin to get political traction. Yet the opportunity-cost of not addressing these issues is also too high to hope that political inertia simply drives healthcare innovation into the next Parliament. 

Positioning reform in the realm of cross-party consensus may prove the most effective way to ensure action and drive towards the long-term sustainability of the NHS in the next five years.

Some of the key issues to be addressed include further integrating health and social care services and establishing new approaches to providing care in the community, relieving pressure on frontline services.

Ahead of May 2015, bringing up the bodies of old arguments should not be enough.

The election presents an opportunity to move healthcare discussions beyond previous elections, but it will take a broad, concerted effort to drive the political debate in that direction.

Mathew Shearman is business partner at Ogilvy Healthworld UK

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