Can 'Save NHS' party make an impact at the ballot box?

Doctor

Doctors and other medics opposed to the NHS reforms are setting up a political party. What are they hoping to achieve?

Dr Richard Taylor still has the appetite for a political scrap.

The hospital doctor turned-independent-MP has just agreed to become co-leader of the National Health Action Party.

He is one of a number of senior medical figures who believe the health service is heading in the wrong direction and are prepared to enter the political fray to try and do something about it.

Dr Taylor rose to national prominence when he won a parliamentary seat in 2001, campaigning for Kidderminster Hospital to retain its accident and emergency facilities.

Famous doctors in the Commons

  • Charles Hill became known as the "radio doctor" after appearing on wartime health broadcasts organised by the Ministry of Food. He became a Conservative MP in 1950 and served in the cabinet between 1957 and 1962
  • David Owen worked at St Thomas's Hospital in London, specialising in neurology, before being elected to Parliament in 1966. He went on to become foreign secretary and SDP leader
  • Hospital doctor and GP Howard Stoate was a Labour MP between 1997 and 2010. He was dragged into the debate over the NHS reform when David Cameron claimed he was supportive of the changes - which he denied

He retained the seat four years later only to lose it in 2010.

He says he has not ruled out standing for the new party at the next election, scheduled for 2015.

"I am going to make a decision nearer the time. I think I would have a good chance of winning."

His decision to throw his weight behind the National Health Action Party is a boost for the embryonic venture which, if history is anything to go by, faces an uphill task if it is to make any lasting impact.

Several parties launched with a fanfare in recent years - Veritas and Libertas being examples - have quickly fallen by the wayside after making barely a ripple at the ballot box.

And independent candidates standing on "anti-politics" tickets in 2010 in the wake of the Commons expenses scandal were mostly soundly defeated.

Start Quote

Dr Richard Taylor

We have had one or two people who we have approached who have said we would much rather support the Labour Party”

End Quote Dr Richard Taylor

The new party is unlikely to attract major financial backers but is already talking of putting up 50 candidates in 2015 and potentially having "real influence" in the event of another hung Parliament.

However, three years is a long time and Dr Taylor acknowledges if, as a result of government changes, the NHS "goes from strength to strength" - with better outcomes for patients and achievable savings - then the party will "obviously fall away and there will be no debate to fight".

Ministers believe this is what will happen but Dr Taylor and his colleagues on the party's executive committee - which include consultants, surgeons and public health experts - are sceptical.

Although the legislation paving the way for a major overhaul of the NHS has been approved by MPs, he says the rough ride Health Secretary Andrew Lansley got at a recent nursing conference shows the level of unease within the NHS about it.

"We are all passionately dedicated to the NHS. What they (ministers) clearly do not understand is that you cannot have the NHS without uniformity of provider and common pay scales."

Under-represented

Although the party's main focus is on reversing the proposed NHS changes, he insists there are plenty of other issues that are "screaming" to be raised such as the future of care for the elderly in England and Wales and the state of the nation's health.

Professional background of MPs elected in 2010

  • Business - 156
  • Councillors/political advisers - 90
  • Lawyers - 86
  • Journalists - 38
  • University lecturers - 25
  • School teachers - 24
  • Civil servants - 16
  • Farmers - 10
  • Doctors - 9
  • Miners - 7

Source: Nuffield Election Studies

"We have called it the National Health Action Party. That does not constrict us to being a single issue NHS party."

But critics say politics should be left to the politicians, particularly when Labour is arguing for many of the same things and has said it will repeal the bulk of the coalition's plans if it wins the next election.

"We have had one or two people who we have approached who have said 'we would much rather support the Labour Party and all their efforts rather than join a new party'," he acknowledges.

While not ruling out working with Labour after an election, he says medical professionals have something different to contribute and their experience and public engagement would make them "fitting MPs".

A number of former doctors have made their mark in politics over the years, including David Owen and Liam Fox.

But medical professionals have arguably been under-represented in the Commons.

'Scaremongering'

Nine MPs with medical backgrounds were elected in 2010, compared with 86 lawyers and 49 teachers and lecturers.

One of those, Conservative Dr Sarah Wollaston, says candidates from the new party could have a "good chance" if they focus on a local issue such as the closure of a hospital.

But the GP, chosen as a Tory candidate through an open primary, is sceptical about the party's wider prospects.

"I think Parliament benefits from independent-minded MPs who bring expertise from fields like health," she says.

"But, personally, I think a National Health Action party by the next election will find itself trying to justify some shocking scaremongering. People will still be visiting NHS GPs and NHS hospitals and wonder why they were told that they were being privatised."

Current MPs with medical backgrounds

  • Dr Liam Fox
  • Dr Sarah Wollaston
  • Dr Dan Poulter
  • Dr Andrew Murrison
  • Dr Alasdair McDonnell
  • Dr Philip Lee
  • Sir Paul Beresford
  • Anas Sarwar
  • David Heath

Dr Taylor insists the party won't be an "elitist doctors' only" entity and will be open to anyone with a proper connection to the health service - preferably with a "local issue" to mobilise support around.

While fielding candidates against the likes of Mr Lansley, his deputy Simon Burns and Nick Clegg, whose party backed the reforms - would make headlines, he says their electoral strategy will be more subtle.

"Obviously we want to be very careful that we do not target seats where all we do is split the vote and allow someone we don't want to get in."

Since leaving the Commons, Dr Taylor has continued his activism and the Independent Community Health Concern of which he is president won three seats on Kidderminster Council in recent polls.

Whether that success can be translated to a national level again remains to be seen.

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