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Party Conferences: a glimpse of what’s to come?

29/10/14
Party Conferences: a glimpse of what’s to come?
Pre-election party conferences have always been an excellent indicator of the issues the forthcoming election will be fought over - and if last month’s Labour conference in Manchester is anything to go by, it seems health and social care will be high on the agenda.

Ed Miliband’s Leader’s Speech had a strong healthcare focus. The aspiring prime minister promised a new £2.5bn NHS fund to hire 36,000 more NHS staff under a future Labour government. These extra workers would consist of 20,000 more nurses, 8,000 more GPs, 5,000 more homecare workers and 3,000 more midwives by 2020.

The Labour leader echoed sentiments that many within the NHS system will easily identify with. He said it was “time to care about our NHS so that doctors, nurses, care workers, midwives are able to spend proper time with us – not be rushed off their feet”.

He berated the “gradual privatisation and fragmentation of the NHS” under the current coalition government and promised to repeal the current government’s Health and Social Care Act, while transforming the NHS so it’s fit for the future. And in his broadly leftist vision of the future NHS, the role of business will be to fund any shortfall through higher taxes on those that make “soaring profits on the back of ill-health”, namely tobacco companies.

Stepping outside the main hall and into the belly of the conference where politicians, lobbyists, journalists and the party faithful mingle, the focus on health and social care could be felt just as strongly. The conference ‘fringe’ events are a good indication of what matters to the party and the organisations that want to influence it, and with the predominance of events in this sector, it is clear that the aging population will also be high on the agenda come 2015.

Shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham MP, spoke alongside the Alzheimer’s Society, the Health and Care forum and others, about the importance of integrating health and social care, and the role this would play in deciding the 2015 general election.  With a string of pertinent events, Age UK, Dignity in Dying, Independent Age, Nuffield Trust, the Kings Fund and many other organisations ensured that the question of service provision for the elderly in a future health care system was never far from anybody’s mind. These fringe events were particularly relevant in the wake of the Barker Commission report released in early September (and supported by the Kings Fund), which stressed the need to reform the NHS funding system by incorporating social care provision therefore making it fit for the 21st Century. 

Over at Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham the following week, health and social care was also high on the agenda. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt stressed that the NHS would be a priority for a future Conservative government, and moreover that the social care system would be enhanced to make “the UK the best country in the world to grow old in”. He outlined the need for a fully integrated health and social care system, and said that this had already begun under his watch.

The Prime Minister also made the NHS an important part of his address to the party and the nation. The personal tone he adopted, describing his experience of the NHS with his late son’s illness, not only brought tears to his wife’s eyes, but received a standing ovation in the main hall. Knowing that the opposition polls better on this issue, David Cameron decided to tackle it head on and try to reduce their lead in this area. The message was clear: Labour cannot claim to be the only party that cares about the NHS.

Aside from moving rhetoric, the Conservative conference did also provide a few policy pledges, not least that a future Conservative government would guarantee access to local GPs seven days a week and protect the NHS against any future spending cuts. The Treasury would be able to afford this, the PM claimed, because a future Conservative government would guarantee a strong economy.

But pre-election party conferences are also an excellent indicator of whether the parties have their finger on the pulse. Both Ed Miliband and David Cameron seem to think that health and social care will be key issues in the election (at time of going to print, Nick Clegg hadn’t yet spoken at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference). Yet both are worried by UKIP’s surge in popularity, with its focus squarely on immigration and the EU. Are the main party leaders taking a gamble with this focus on healthcare? Or are they ahead of the curve when it comes to what really matters?  Only time will tell. Tune in in May 2015.

This article was first featured in the October print edition of Healthcare Business News.

Uche Graves is a Senior Account Executive at PLMR and regularly works on delivering public affairs and media relations support to a number of clients particularly in the Health & Social Care sector. He attended the 2014 Labour Party Conference in Manchester.

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