It’s exactly one year since the cross party NHS Reinstatement Bill was tabled in the House of Commons. One year in which the initial Bill fell and was re-tabled, in which the privatisation of the NHS in England has proceeded unhindered, and in which the Labour party’s leadership has changed – many hope for the better. One year of campaigning efforts by thousands to get the majority of MPs to wake up to what is happening to the NHS and to pass a law to stop it. And the upshot of all this? 17 minutes of debate in the Commons.
After the spirited proceedings outside the Department of Health and the crowd at the rally outside the Commons, I went inside to listen to the debate. What a difference. The first thing to hit you was the emptiness. Hardly anybody there. Perhaps as many as 40 MPs, certainly fewer than 50. Oh, it’s Friday, say the Westminster cognoscenti, nobody’s there on a Friday. But what about the tens of thousands of people who have asked their MPs to be there? That made no difference to the vast majority of them.
Then there was the filibustering. The “usual suspects” on the Tory backbenches were going on and on about how we need a law to exclude foreigners convicted of crimes to be excluded from the UK. The Deputy Speaker said she couldn’t stop them talking. When they were challenged by Caroline Lucas and the SNP, they feigned offence. 4.5 hours for them, 17 minutes for us. Fair play?
Perhaps the most disappointing impression was the small number of Labour MPs who turned up – perhaps 15, certainly no more than 20 (hard to count with the comings and goings). Full marks to those who did – and to the strong showing from the SNP – but there’s a long way to go.
And finally, the most abiding impression. If enough Labour MPs had turned up, it might have been possible to stop the Tory MPs talking by putting a closure motion. When this was pointed out by Caroline Lucas, the shared smirks on the faces of silent Heidi Alexander, Labour shadow health minister, and the junior health minister Ben Gummer, gave the game way. The Tories didn’t want a proper NHS debate, neither did Labour’s health team and together they made sure it didn’t happen. Body language speaks louder than words.
Filibustering, empty benches, silence, smirks and front bench deals are contemptuous responses to tens of thousands of people. They are also counter-productive. This second NHS Reinstatement Bill will fall. But the spirit is high and the commitment to bring a third, and a fourth, and a fifth – until a proper public NHS is restored – is stronger than ever.