Day dreamers relax. It seems that we can let our minds run free – it’s actually a useful part of the mental process. ‘Mind wandering’ in various contexts is the subject of several new papers this autumn including […]
So, do we need more Doctors in the House?
Consultant oncologist Clive Peedell is used to taking the pulse of patients individually. But in recent months his ambitions have scaled up. He now he wants to take the pulse of the nation. And to do so, he is launching a new political organisation – the National Health Action Party.
No need to ask what inspires the creation of this new political organisation – the clue is in the name. Peedell’s party has been born of desperate anger and frustration among medics and healthcare professionals over the increasing privatisation of the National Health Service through the passing of the recent Health and Social Care Act, driven by Secretary of State for Health Andrew Lansley MP, and made law in April.
The new party has been formally incorporated and has 39-year-old Mr Peedell and Dr Richard Taylor (independent MP for Wyre Forest from 2001-2010) as co-chairs of a 12-member executive body. The party plans to field about 50 MPs at the next election (drawing its talent from mostly medical fields), and setting them at mostly Coalition target seats. It is now setting in place social media tools and fund-raising plans.
Its prospects are not unreasonable. Conservative peer and former chairman Lord Ashcroft ordered a poll when he heard about the party, to establish its chances. He may have been surprised at the results. The public rather liked the idea: the NHS ‘party’ came third, with 18%, behind Conservative and Labour.
But why would a physician (public trust rating about 90%) want to swap the bedside for the Benches and become an MP (public trust rating – well, think of a number and halve it)? Especially given that the last time such a thing was attempted, in 1990, a GP-backed NHS Supporters Party, peaked at ninth place in the Mid-Staffordshire by-election of that year, with 102 votes.
Also, why not – like Totnes GP Dr Sarah Wollaston - simply join one of the existing parties which would offer a much better chance of election?
‘I wasn’t political growing up,’ admits Clive Peedell. ‘But in 2006-2007 when – like many doctors – I saw the mess politicians were making of the Modernising Medical Careers process (the overhaul of doctors’ training which saw the length of training required to reach the grade of consultant fall from an average of 21,000 to just 6,000 hours), I was inspired to become active. I was a new consultant by this point but felt very angry on behalf of junior doctors coming through behind me as I felt they were being very let down.’
He joined a march organised by pressure group Remedy UK and then became active in the British Medical Association (the doctors’ professional association).
It’s still a big step up from that to launching a party though. What happened?
‘I got angry,’ he says, flatly. ‘When I saw the White Paper (the preparatory briefings) for the Health and Social Care Bill last year, I read it line by line. It became a hugely complicated piece of legislation. But what was obvious to me was that it was about increasing privatisation – which would mean both a worse service for patients – and, despite all Mr Lansley’s claims, a much more expensive one. Outside providers would be brought in and allowed to cherry pick the lucrative work of the NHS, leaving hospitals unable to fund the more expensive and serious acute care.’
His first action was to organise a protest event – the so-called Bevan’s Run in January this year. Starting at the statue of NHS creator Aneurin Bevan in Cardiff, Peedell ran six marathons in six marathon-long days to the Department of Health to deliver a protest and a petition, via David Cameron’s constituency of Witney, Oxfordshire.
Running alongside colleague and fellow consultant David Wilson, also from James Cook University Hospital, Middlesbrough, Peedell admits the run was gruelling.
‘I had managed three months’ training at nights during the winter while the kids’ – he has two daughters aged five and eight – ‘were asleep. My wife, a GP, was very understanding!
‘But I have no background as a runner – I just bought some kit and a nightlight. Sometimes I’d get in at midnight or one in the morning.’
His expert friends helped Peedell cope. Specialist advice from a physio saw the two men leaping into ice baths after each day to get rid of the pain. They suffered minor strains but were surprised not to ache more. Nor did their patients miss out – the run was taken as annual leave – four days off work plus a weekend.
But while the physical run was easier than Peedell imagined it didn’t attract a lot of publicity. ‘We didn’t get a lot of traditional media attention – we got in the Guardian and on local TV. The BBC took some footage on the last day but didn’t even interview us. That was disappointing.’
But good doctors don’t give up on their cases easily. Especially oncologists (thankfully).
Clive canvassed his colleagues and wrote a letter to the Independent on Sunday, garnering signatures and attracting the support of Richard Taylor, who had himself gone into Parliament as an independent on a single medical issue – the proposed closure of Kidderminster hospital. ‘His knowledge is invaluable,’ says Clive.
He adds: ‘The NHS almost defines Britishness these days; it is a huge part of the social fabric of this country. It is how we care for one another – once you start to take that apart, you lose what society is about. And yet we are seeing it being dismantled without any democratic mandate. Remember at the last election when the Conservatives promised no top-down reorganisation, no privatisation? It is vital we get people into the House of Commons to prevent it being dismantled further and lost.’
To those who say the reforms are making no negative difference, he points out, ‘The changes won’t happen overnight but three, five, ten years from now the system will be completely transformed. Lots of private companies will be using the NHS logo but it won’t be completely privatised because a large chunk simply isn’t profitable so no company will want to take that on.’
Clive doesn’t reserve his anger just for the Coalition which has driven (and voted) the Bill through. ‘Labour says it wants to repeal the Bill but we have to remember that New Labour formed the platform enabling Lansley to do what he is doing now.’
He also hopes the new National Health Action party will make a stand against the wider culture of corporate lobbying. It is particularly prevalent in healthcare with many huge firms boasting former health ministers as their directors and pushing the current ministers ever harder to make it easier for private companies to take over public services.
Back to the National Health Service – what would his MPs do should they be elected? Can you turn back the clock?
‘We want a proper debate on healthcare delivery. As far as possible we want an evidence-based system which could be cheaper and more cost-effective. The new reforms are ideologically driven, not evidence driven.
‘We want fewer private firms involved because they offer less transparency and less public accountability. Commercial confidentiality will always used to protect the private sector’s profit motives.’
But the National Health Action party won’t be a single issue party; its concerns will be more closely tied up with public services and society.
So do they have a real chance? Lord Ashcroft was not concerned by his polling, claiming that their vote would harm Labour more than the Tories, and that moreover, few senior consultants – having undergone lengthy training – would then be willing to throw that up for a stint at Parliament.
Clive laughs again. ‘Well, his theory only works if we stand everywhere. But we intend to cherry pick our seats the way private companies cherry pick NHS services. We’ll be analysing the most vulnerable Conservative and LibDem seats and starting there. Although Labour aren’t safe. There are a couple of its MPs who really sold out the NHS who should be worried.’
Nor is he affected by the idea that doctors won’t stand. ‘There are plenty of newly retired or semi-retired consultants who feel very strongly about this. They’d make excellent MPs.’ And he is welcoming anyone – nurses, physiotherapists, health economists, even non-medics – who shares the party’s views to come forward and talk about whether they’d like to be candidates. There are no plans to run the party with a whipped system as the other parties use. The group would consider the evidence on any issue, but ultimately vote with their conscience. Something he notes that the LibDems failed to do over the NHS Bill – ‘had they voted the way they all previously claimed they would – ie to protect the NHS – the Bill would never have passed.
‘If the Tories had got in with even a small majority that Bill would have been blocked. Coalition has been very dangerous for this country.’
Will Clive stand? After all, he has only been a full consultant for a few years and clearly is devoted to his cancer patients. ‘I don’t know. I am still considering that. My local MP here is William Hague – I’m not sure I could dent his huge majority. It might also be a possibility to stand against David Cameron. I was born in Oxfordshire and my brother lives locally.
‘Anyway, this isn’t about me getting into Parliament. I’ll be just as happy in a co-leader role.
‘But we need to clean up the political system – make it work better for all of us. I’m fed up with the revolving door culture between the political class and big business, which is sucking up public funds – especially in the health service.’
He adds: ‘I think we are looking at something quite exciting and inspirational. We need MPs with a strong political drive to stand up for public values and public services. We want to get trust back in the system.’
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Follow the newly launched National Health Action party at @NHAparty