England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Labour backs NHS privatisation: We need a new party!

By Chas Berry, Socialist Alternative Kent and Medway

Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting caused outrage this week by backing more privatisation of the NHS. Writing in The Sun newspaper, he accused “middle-class lefties” of betraying the working class by opposing the use of private providers to reduce NHS waiting lists.

Streeting was immediately challenged by the campaign group Keep Our NHS Public for his “derogatory and dismissive comments”. They rightly point out that private healthcare robs the NHS of both staff and resources while ultimately costing the Government more to keep it free for users. Underfunding the NHS while paying private companies to ease the pressure makes no sense, they explain. 

No sense, of course, unless you happen to own shares in private health companies. While official figures suggest around 7% of NHS expenditure goes to privately run Independent Treatment Centres (ISTCs) specifically to reduce NHS waiting lists, the real cost of purchasing additional services through Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), Hospital, Primary and Social Care Trusts (about 53,000 contracts) is around £29 billion. In 2019, the last year for which figures are available, this equates to 26% NHS Expenditure according to data analysis by the Centre for Health and Public Interest (CHPI). 

The biggest winners of this private sector bonanza were Care UK with 17 contracts worth £731 million and Virgin Care with 13 contracts worth £579 million. This was all before the eye-watering amounts shelled out on sub-standard PPE and the failed Track and Trace system during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

While Labour can rightly claim the Tories have abused their position in office for 14 years to enrich themselves and their corporate backers, it was the Blair and Brown Governments of the early 2000s that accelerated the use of ISTCs while encouraging the best NHS hospitals to become Foundation Trusts and act more like businesses. 

In 2009, Labour introduced the ‘any qualified provider’ (AQA) initiative that allowed private providers outside ISTCs to undertake NHS work. This handed the Tories the mechanism to outsource all elective work on a plate. 

Streeting is trying to drive a wedge between what he conceives as working class voters who just want NHS waiting lists to come down and ‘high minded’ socialists who have principles but can afford to go private. By doing so, he is knocking down a straw man to hide what is effectively a Tory policy to hand more cash to the already super-rich.

Socialist Alternative fights for planned not-for-profit national health and social care services. In practice this could be achieved by subsuming all 53,000 NHS contracts ‘in house’ and nationalising the giant health and social care companies as well as the pharmaceutical companies under democratic workers’ control, as part of a socialist plan of production. With New Labour under Starmer and Streeting firmly committed to Tory policies, workers must build a new left party of struggle as an urgent necessity. 

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