Jon Ashworth: "Labour can beat this shambolic Tory party"
The Conservative government is "brittle" and there for the taking, Labour’s Jon Ashworth argues. But the shadow health secretary warns his own party it must get its act together first. He talks to Kevin Schofield
Jonathan Ashworth put his friendship with some Labour colleagues to the test last autumn when he accepted the chance to become shadow health secretary in Jeremy Corbyn’s new frontbench team.
Some saw it as an act of betrayal following a summer-long civil war which culminated in the leader being re-elected with an even larger mandate.
In addition, Ashworth also had to give up his place on Labour ruling National Executive Committee, tipping the balance on the powerful body back in Corbyn’s favour.
But for someone steeped in the party, the chance to take control of the health brief was simply too much for the Leicester South MP to turn down.
“I wanted to remain on the NEC, I was very proud to be a member. I joined Labour when I was 15 and have always been interested in the party, and thought it was a great honour to sit on the NEC. But Jeremy Corbyn nominated a different set of Shadow Cabinet members and I didn’t sense there was an appetite among the Shadow Cabinet to overturn that,” he says.
“The health service is being so mismanaged, cut back, it’s under so much threat from the Conservatives, I thought it was important to try to do my best to hold the government to account.”
Regardless of the circumstances of his appointment, the winter A&E crisis has provided the pugnacious Mancunian with the perfect platform to set out the Labour case for solving the health service’s woes.
His office in Portcullis House has a flipchart and a whiteboard, both of which are covered in facts and figures detailing where the government is failing to hit its own self-imposed targets.
“There is a crisis in our NHS now and it’s a consequence of the decisions that Theresa May has made,” says Ashworth. “We’re going into the seventh year of this Conservative government, with a winter crisis, hospitals on black alert across the country, A&E waiting times being missed, cancer patients having their operations cancelled.
“This is a result of under-funding of the NHS. It’s happening because there are multi-billion pound cuts in social care, so thousands upon thousands of elderly people cannot get the care packages they would have done and are trapped in hospitals with nowhere to go.
“Theresa May is now blaming family doctors, but General Practice has been under-funded and there is a staffing crisis, and the government she has been part of has closed around 50 GP-led walk-in centres over the last six years.
“When it was the seventh year of the Labour government, we were recruiting record numbers of nurses, record numbers of doctors, the largest hospital building programme in history and were well on the way to having the highest satisfaction ratings ever in the NHS.
“Going into the seventh year of a Conservative government, you see it under-funded, under-staffed and over-stretched.”
When it is pointed out to him that Britain’s fiscal position in 2017 is rather different from what it was in 2004, Ashworth retorts: “The government has chosen to give billions away in a tax cut to corporations, it’s chosen to go down the route of a £1bn inheritance tax cut.
“In the autumn statement they chose to spend money on new grammar schools, but haven’t chosen to put the necessary funds into social care and the NHS. Government is about choices.”
Perhaps worried that his response sounds a bit too much like the tax-and-spend solutions of Labour governments down the ages, he adds: “I wouldn’t want you to go away with the impression that my concern is only about finances. My concern is also about what I think is now an incompetent approach to this winter crisis.
“Theresa May told the Commons last Wednesday that it’s just a ‘small number of unacceptable incidents’. It reveals a bigger truth about Theresa May, in that she has a disregard for the National Health Service. She has no sympathy for it and just wants it to go away as an issue.
“I would argue – perhaps some of my colleagues would disagree – that David Cameron did have an appreciation for the health service. Theresa May just dismisses concerns and says ‘I was able to cut police budgets, so why can’t the NHS budget be cut?’ That attitude she has is revealed in what I would say is an incompetent response to the crisis – blaming patients, blaming [NHS England boss] Simon Stevens and blaming GPs.”
So what is Labour’s big idea for sorting out the NHS? The truth is, at the moment, the party does not seem to have one. In an attempt to remedy that, Ashworth reveals that he is set to go on a nationwide tour to get the views of those who use and work in the health service.
He says: “Over the next few months I want to engage people in a debate about the NHS. My plan is to go out across the country to talk to patients, talk to families, talk to clinicians about their priorities for the NHS. We need to have a debate about the future of the NHS in this country.”
Already, however, there would appear to be a rather significant red line. Using private money to help ease the NHS’s cash pressures is strictly off-limits.
Ashworth says: “The last Labour government brought in some operations from the private sector to deal with a backlog in operations on cataracts and hip operations. Ultimately I’m a pragmatist, but I’m not convinced that the economics of private healthcare work or make any sense. I wouldn’t have thought it’s the road we’d want to go down.”
One way or another, Ashworth says, extra cash will need to be found. Interestingly, he points out that the last Labour government put 1% on National Insurance payments to help the NHS and says his party “is always going to fund the NHS properly”.
“The NHS is going through the biggest financial squeeze in its history,” he says. “We’ve had £4.5bn cut from social care budgets. Things are in a dire situation at the moment and Simon Stevens is right to speak out, even if it frustrates Theresa May and the chancellor. They’re just going to have to take that on the chin.
“Everyone who works in the NHS can see this financial squeeze is doing immense harm and can’t be allowed to continue. I would say to the government ‘start putting it on a stronger financial footing in the Budget.’”
For nearly seven years, Labour has been forced to shout from the sidelines as first the coalition and now the Conservatives alone have had the reins of the NHS. The opinion polls suggest it is a situation which is unlikely to change for quite some time.
Ashworth insists the government is “brittle”, but concedes that Labour is not in a position to take advantage. Given that there could conceivably be an election this year, that is a far from ideal situation for the party to find itself in.
He says: “They’ve got no answers for the health service and that’s been exposed quite graphically in their floundering response to the winter crisis; they have no answers on Brexit and they have no answers for the demographic changes that are going on in the country.
“I don’t know when she’ll go to the country, but we’ve got to be ready to fight one in 2017. My instinct is, because she’s so cautious, that she won’t go.
“The Labour party ought to be in a position to take on this shambolic, brittle Tory party, so we need to work for it – we need to make sure we’re ready for it.”
Keen-eyed observers will note that Ashworth very deliberately refuses to say that Labour is in a position to take advantage of the government’s weaknesses, only that it “ought to be”.
It will take more than a national tour to get back on the road to power. But for Jonathan Ashworth, the journey has to start somewhere.