Party conferences were always going to be a challenge for each of the parties on health. To help them, I provided some pro-bono advice for Andrew Lansley, Paul Burstow and John Healey – and they have all followed it, at least to some degree. So did anyone win this party conference season on health? Perhaps a better way to put it is that no one lost – all avoided some of the potential pitfalls awaiting them.
Paul Burstow was never going to be a popular figure in Birmingham, but he successfully managed to set out some of the real life gains (as opposed to tweaks to the Bill) that he can claim to have delivered, linking them in to his own philosophy. He was able to describe how his input is bringing NHS and social care services closer together, while also moving power over services closer to patients. He also avoided another vote from activists which threatened to back the Liberal Democrats into a corner on the Health and Social Care Bill. Overall, he emerged a stronger figure.
John Healey knew that, for his activists, the NHS – and opposition to the Health and Social Care Bill – would be near the top of the conference agenda. Yet he also knew that Labour’s main audience was beyond the conference hall and the important task is not to win applause from members now, but to win arguments and votes in a few years time. Acknowledging that the status quo is not an option and that Labour needs to be on the side of change is an important first step. Many of the details of his proposed changes, however, will require careful thinking through. It is easy to say, for example, that the NHS should prefer providers with a ‘social ethos’, but defining or implementing this will be a different matter entirely. With reshuffle rumours swirling, it remains to be seen whether Liverpool 2011 will be remembered by John Healey as his only conference as Shadow Health Secretary or the week when he laid the groundwork for a longer-term Labour position on the NHS.
Andrew Lansley experienced the unusual feeling of being a darling of the right. He safely resisted the temptation, however, to play to the gallery (the same cannot be said of all his Cabinet colleagues). This was one of his better conference speeches, focusing on the purpose of the reforms, highlighting the practical benefits for patients of some of his policies (mixed sex wards, cancer drugs etc) and blending the populist (language checks for overseas doctors) with the technical (off-label drugs and personal budgets). He may not have been able to emote in the way that some politicians could, but the emphasis on purpose over process was there.
My verdict? There was enough in this conference season for Lansley, Burstow and Healey to all feel quietly satisfied. Now they need to take forward these themes and develop them over the coming months.