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Editorial: Richard Burgon’s NHS debate and Starmer’s rule change: a tale of two Labours

CONTRAST Socialist Campaign Group of MPs secretary Richard Burgon’s call to arms on NHS privatisation in Parliament today with Sir Keir Starmer’s relentless war on his own party.

Conference season is a chance to get a wide audience for a political challenge to the government.

Burgon’s observations that the Tories’ latest NHS reforms are “a charter for corruption” that will make it easier for the government to avoid scrutiny over the parcelling out of public health contracts are spot on.

The legislation is deeply dishonest, presenting itself as about removing wasteful internal markets — which the Conservatives know are unpopular, as is all private-sector provision in the NHS — when it puts for-profit firms at the heart of its new “integrated care systems.”

There could not be a better time for Labour to be throwing itself into the campaign for a properly funded, publicly owned and publicly delivered NHS.

The damage done by privatisation, outsourcing and underfunding has become clear over the course of the pandemic.

Health workers are in militant mood, voting in union after union to reject the government’s insulting pay offer.

Polls have shown public support for higher pay in the sector and, despite the disgraceful abuse of NHS staff by a vocal minority of anti-science thugs, public appreciation of their work and of the NHS itself is higher than ever following a global pandemic.

But while Burgon takes the fight to the Tories on the NHS, the leader of the Labour Party is busy trying to bulldoze anti-democratic rule changes through Labour conference.

Ludicrously, this fixation on internal procedure is billed as about looking outwards rather than in, moving to a party that addresses the public rather than its own.

Starmer’s duplicity is clear. We know from Unite’s Sharon Graham that these rule changes were not even mentioned when he met her for an hour on Monday.

The last-minute revelation of plans to dramatically change the way Labour elects its leader is clearly a bid to spring the move on an unprepared opposition and railroad it through, minimising the opportunity for members and affiliated members to organise against it.

But that is nothing new: from the 10 policy pledges he made to get elected to his repeated claims to stand for unity while pushing the most vicious campaign of proscriptions and expulsions in Labour history, we know Starmer is no more honest than his famously mendacious opposite number in Downing Street.

Even so, the “looking outwards” pitch reflects a deep-rooted sense of superiority among Labour MPs, many of whom maintain that their elected status means they are in closer touch with the public mood than party members — clearly seen by those around Starmer as unrepresentative cranks.

This self-belief has somehow survived Brexit — in which MPs of all parties were shown to be wildly out of touch — as well as the temporary disorientation caused by the enthusiastic public response to a programme of nationalisation and economic planning in the 2017 election (which saw the biggest swing to Labour in 70 years).

But it is unjustified. The Westminster bubble of MPs, corporate lobbyists and privately educated pro-Establishment pundits shuts out the real world far more effectively than a party card.

The proposed rule change is designed not to increase Labour’s appeal but to ensure ordinary people know their place and do not spring surprises on the political elite as they repeatedly did from 2015. It is to seal up the edges of the “Overton window” of politically acceptable opinion as policed by those in power.

In so doing it would weaken Labour’s connections to the communities it should be fighting for, and undermine its ability to mobilise against damaging Tory policies like their NHS reforms.

Sadly that doesn’t matter to most Labour MPs, but it is to be hoped that trade unions perceive the real agenda here.

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