When I stood as a Conservative parliamentary candidate in 2015, I remember preparing notes on every conceivable subject for my first hustings. But when it came to the NHS, I couldn’t bring myself to follow the party political line and just bash my opponents; no one has fixed it and no single party is to blame.
What I said, instead, was that we should have an independent commission to decide the future of the NHS and put it above party politics. It was a line that went down very well with the audience; when politicians throw numbers at each other we all get lost and a mature debate proves impossible.
So I strongly support the position Norman Lamb has developed as the party’s health spokesman, calling for an NHS and Health Convention to instigate a national conversation involving charities, professional groups and patients’ groups as well as politicians. In January, he was backed by 75 organizations and it’s a shame this policy attracted so little interest from journalists despite getting such widespread support from those closest to the health service.
Our headline policy pledge of a 1p increase in income tax, ring-fenced to deliver an extra £6bn a year spending on the NHS, stood out at the election. But, to my mind, our promise to create an Independent Office of Health and Care Funding to monitor health and care budgets, and reporting every three years, was just as important.
Independent is the key word because we need outsiders to bring a fresh perspective to the NHS, not the same old blinkered, inflexible approach. A parliamentary term of five years is a fixed timeline and politicians rarely look beyond it, but you cannot fix the NHS in that time. You need to change the timeline so it’s not dependent on the political cycle.
I am a project manager and my job often involves going into businesses struggling to meet the timeline for a project. The bosses often think the answer is to throw more money at it, as if that alone will solve the problem. But it’s not that simple. The solution is frequently to introduce phased timelines, rather than a single fixed timeline, with parallel work streams.
Rather than insisting on a fixed five-year timeline, for example, it’s often better to have a five-year timeline, a ten-year timeline and a 15-year timeline so the learnings from each phase of the project can be taken into the next one. In the long term, it’s a cheaper solution because when problems occur they are addressed and fixed rather than being continually patched up.
I think the same is true of the NHS. The days of the quick fix are over. For too long, politicians have been too lazy in their approach to the NHS; we have been too reluctant to learn from other countries, too constrained in our thinking and too reluctant to re-model outdated structures.
We all know that Brexit is going to have a disastrous impact on the nation’s finances. I’d rather see a 1p increase in income tax than £1bn spent bribing the DUP to keep the government afloat, but the reality is we need to start thinking much more smartly about how we fund the NHS. An independent commission to oversee its future is a crucial pre-requisite for smarter decision-making and we must continue the campaign to make it happen.
* Azi Ahmed joined the Liberal Democrats during the 2017 election campaign, having previously stood as a Conservative.