First published on ProgressOnline
With a star-studded cast, This May Hurt a Bit at London’s St James’ Theatre is the perfect mix between a party political broadcast from Michael Foot’s Labour party and a Guardian reader’s dinner party.
While the actors were second to none, their script was simplistic and lacked the depth that the debate on our NHS deserves. Glib claims that ‘Nu Labour’ followed seamlessly from Thatcherism and that the coalition government’s pernicious reforms are somehow the realisation of Blair’s vision before them, betray the real truth. It is for someone else to point out the fact that it is this sloppy logic that would also say that all changes and charges in the NHS started with everyone’s favourite Labour government, the very founders of the NHS, as they imposed prescription charges in 1951.
Disappointingly this play single-mindedly, like many in my own party, ignores the fact that New Labour bequeathed the coalition government in 2010 an NHS at the height of its popularity. An 88 per cent approval rating did not happen by chance, but by choice. And that success was down to much more than simply doubling the NHS budget – it was this financial commitment alongside the delivery of a progressive reform agenda, which put the patient front and centre. It was these very reforms that the play’s script, and many of the campaigners from the National Health Action party standing outside the theatre, so vehemently railed against, but which delivered record high levels of public approval.
NHS Direct, targets, foundation hospitals, independent treatment centres, walk-in centres and polyclinics all helped make the NHS the success it was pre-2010. None of this however is reflected in the play, instead just hollow remarks about ‘privatisation’ and ‘creeping marketisation’ that have fallen into liberal parlance, but that too many are unable to describe in any meaningful sense.
I still support what successive Labour health secretaries did to reduce waiting lists and hospital-acquired infections through treatment centres and new providers. In fact it was these reforms that stopped people being forced to go private and the two-speed NHS that leaves ordinary people behind. It should not be forgotten that a direct comparison was alive and well while we were in office and that a Labour government in England, that both invested and reformed the NHS, got waiting lists down to 18 weeks, while our neighbours in Wales had people waiting some 26 weeks. So much for clear red water.
The play opens with Welsh Labour’s favourite son Nye Bevan addressing the House of Commons as he commends his NHS bill to his colleagues on both sides of the house. He called the British Medical Association ‘politically poisoned people’ who never found a health minister they approve of. He cites their problems with Lloyd George, a Welsh Liberal; Ernest Brown, a Scottish National Liberal; Henry Willink an English Conservative; and then himself, a Welsh socialist.
Every time a health secretary has proposed changes from that point onward they are presented with the same objections as those of the NHS founder and his predecessors. While this is self-evidently true, so many critics of reform not only ignore this fact, they internalise it. This has given rise to the worst strategic mistake made among those of us who wish to defend an NHS that is free at the point of use.
When the Tories tried to suggest that their flawed top-down reorganisation was a Blairite reform, a post-2010 general election Labour party responded not by calling it out for what it really was, but by asking why they would want to make a Blairite reform. But it was not those who distanced themselves from the last Labour government that managed to stop the worst excesses of Andrew Lansley’s plans; it was those that defended Labour’s record, crucially showing how the Tory-led reforms differed so greatly from those before, who secured concessions at the bill committee stage.
Personal highlights were watching Stephanie Cole, formerly the very prim and proper Sylvia Goodwin from Coronation Street, swearing like a trooper at her Republican son-in-law and his proselytising of the American insurance model. By contrast, I was disappointed that jokes about the ‘difficult-to-pronounce’ names of doctors and patients alike left the door ajar to the suggestion that migrants are part of problem, not, as they are, the saviours of our NHS.
As the play concludes, there was much awkward laughter as the grim reaper visited hospital beds and then the NHS itself. While the play will have provided great gossip fodder for the Guardianistas’ dinner parties, the play falls disappointingly short of the well-argued, factual and emotive political broadcast so desperately needed on behalf of our much loved NHS.
This May Hurt a Bit
By Stella Feehily, Directed by Max Stafford-Clark
St James’ Theatre | 14 May – 21 June 2014 | £5-34.00
Photo: St James’ Theatre