My God, is it really fifteen years since Hillary Clinton’s efforts to deliver universal healthcare for Americans were defeated in the US Congress? The same year Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party? A lot has happened in both countries since.
And as Barack Obama takes off where the wife of his predecessor but one left off, one of the things that has happened in this country is the steady improvement of the NHS under Labour. Remember annual winter crises? Remember waiting times that stretched into years not months? Remember Labour making promises on investment and waiting times which our critics said could never be delivered? Well, they have.
Which all brings me back to one of my tired records which still needs playing into the ears of every Labour minister, MP, activist and supporter – we have to do a better job of defending the record.
People talk a lot about trust in politics, and with a 24/7 media giving people reasons not to trust politics and politicians most of those 24 hours in most of those seven days, there is a tendency to overlook the other side of the story – promises made, progress delivered. It is why John Prescott is right to brandish his pledge cards as he goes around the place. It is why it is time people stopped just bowing down before the media agenda the whole time, meeting them half way on the notion that everything is terrible, when it is not, and started sticking to our own.
Defending the record is not about boastfulness. It is a neccessary part of winning the argument about who is best placed to meet the challenges of the future.
Gordon Brown set out three immediate challenges the other day at his post reshuffle press conference – cleaning up the expenses system, leading Britain through the recesssion, further reforming public services. Of course the longer you’ve been in power, the more you risk the question ‘so what have you been doing these past x years?’ The answer is a lot, and it needs to be spelled out.
The expenses scandal should not deter us from talking about the good that Labour politicians do, nor from setting out the changes to our constitution already made … we are not starting from a blank page, and we should be careful not to throw out the baby – properly defended Parliamentary democracy – with the bathwater of moats and duckhouses..
The economic crisis is real and global, and GB and Alistair Darling have won a lot of respect for the decisions taken to stabilise the situation. But the decade long economic growth and prosperity that went before it cannot just be airbrushed out of history. This government has made a lot of choices, and a lot of them have been right.
And on public services, again we are not starting from a blank page. In every part of the country, there are improvements that will simply be taken for granted and forgotten, unless we spell them out, alongside the plans and choices for the future.
Meanwhile, good luck to Obama. He will need all his popularity and political nous, as the hugely funded health insurers, drug companies and newly energised Republicans go into battle to keep a healthcare system for the few and not the many.
So while we are on about the record, the very existence of the NHS is part of Labour’s record, the struggle to make it happen a vital and bruising chapter in our history. That history speaks to the values that are central to the reconnection with the electorate that has to happen. Who do people really trust with the health service? That question has to be brought back centre stage.
Ps … another result to report, this one from where I live in North London. We lost Gospel Oak to the Tories for the first time at the last local elections. In the Euros on Thursday, the Tories got 16 per cent of the vote, to Labour’s 32.