Spot the difference

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We will give "mental health parity with physical health". Can you guess which party says this? The Liberal Democrats, who have flown the flag for mental health services?

Yes. But these exact words were actually taken from UKIP's manifesto. Labour's manifesto said the two should have the "same priority", while the Tories opted for the phrase "equal priority".

What about this? We want to integrate health and care. Labour? Tories? Yes and yes - along with the Greens, UKIP and Lib Dems on the campaign trail.

There are plenty more examples like these on everything from improving access to GPs to tackling the A&E pressures and employing more staff. In fact, it could be said, the ambitions are remarkably similar.

It is a point made by Chris Ham, chief executive of the King's Fund think tank. At the health election debate held at the British Library this week (a kind of leaders debate for the health spokespeople), he remarked how there was a great deal of consensus between the parties - and that was something to "celebrate".

Of course, it doesn't mean there are no differences at all. Labour talks about repealing the coalition's Health and Social Care Act (as do the Greens) to curb what the party says is the privatisation of the NHS - a claim disputed by the Tories and one many commentators play down, pointing out NHS spending going to the private sector has only increased from 4.9% when the coalition came to power to 6.1% last year.

Q&A: Health and care - the background issues

But in terms of the broad direction of the health service, there is much more the parties have in common despite the natural heat developed during an election campaign.

Even in areas where there appears to be disagreement, if you take a step back, the gap between the parties is perhaps much smaller than can initially seem the case.

Take funding, for example. This has been the source of much disagreement with the spin doctors, journalists and commentators poring over the detail of the promises.

The Tories plan for an extra £8bn by 2020 is said to be uncosted, while questions remain over how quickly Labour would be able to invest the proceeds of the mansion tax into the health service.

But the fact remains the Tories, Lib Dems, Labour and UKIP - along with the Scottish National Party - have all promised what amounts to small real terms increases over the next Parliament. That is astonishing in itself at a time of such austerity.

However, it's also clear that what is being earmarked for health is a long way short of what the NHS has traditionally got - an extra 4.5% or so over the course of its history.

But, of course, "Parties agree on the NHS" doesn't make a great headline. Nor is it in the interests of the parties themselves, which want to convince voters they have the answers to the challenges facing the health service.

However, it could be said that those challenges - the ageing population and lifestyle factors such as obesity - have actually had the effect of narrowing the number of options open to the parties (if, that is, they want to maintain a universal, free-at-the-point-of-need health service without dramatic rises in taxes, which all seem to).

Whisper it quietly, but that may actually be the best thing for the health service, which craves stability. Behind the scenes at Westminster, there have been talks about developing some kind of cross-party commission or forum once the election is over to look at the entire system.

In fact, it is something the Lib Dems have been saying publicly on the election trail. Labour and the Tories have so far refused to sign up to it, but don't be surprised if there is some movement on that once the election is over.

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