Why are Welsh Labour politicians pretending they don’t run the NHS in Wales?
Ifan Morgan Jones
During the General Election fewer than two months ago, the Labour party hammered the Conservatives on their record on the NHS in England.
“A decade of Tory health cuts and privatisations has pushed our greatest institution to the brink,” their manifesto warned.
“Our hospitals are crumbling, equipment is outdated, IT systems are inadequate and community facilities are neglected.”
One thing was made clear – Labour were holding the Tories to account for their record on the NHS.
However, when it comes to the running of the NHS in Wales, which is fully under the control of the Labour Welsh Government, they now pretend that they have nothing to do with it.
Last week Pontypridd’s Labour MP, Alex Davies-Jones MP, took to social media to campaign to “save our A&E at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital”.
When it was rightly pointed out that she, as a Labour MP, was campaigning against a decision made by a Labour-run NHS, a Labour AM, Dawn Bowden, intervened to say that the Welsh NHS was “funded by the Welsh Labour Government” but was “managed by people who are paid to do so”.
Let’s just stop for a moment and imagine what Labour’s response would have been if the Conservatives had taken a ‘nothing to do with us, guv’ approach when question on their record of managing England’s NHS during the General Election.
Can you imagine Boris Johnson saying: ‘We only fund the NHS – it’s run by some very smart people over whom we have no control’? Labour and the press would have spoken of little else for weeks.
The truth is that the Labour Welsh Government doesn’t just ‘fund’ the NHS, of course. If what Dawn Bowden claimed was true then running the NHS could be handled by Rebecca Evans AM, the Minister for Finance.
But it’s not. The Welsh Government also has a Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, and his responsibilities (there is quite a long list) includes both “oversight” and “scrutiny” of the NHS, and indeed “all aspects of public health and health protection in Wales”.
He appoints the managers, including the Chief Executive of the NHS and also members of the Health Boards. In practice he could place the Health Board under direct Welsh Government control if he wanted to, as has already happened in the north of Wales.
I.e. he is the boss – our elected representative telling the unelected Health Boards what to do. The responsibility for the NHS lies with him, and of course the First Minister who can fire him as Health Minister.
Ultimately, then, the buck stops with the Welsh government. If they allow Royal Glamorgan A&E to close (and there are no doubt some good reasons for closing it) that is a political decision they are making. Governments have to make tough and unpopular decisions all the time.
But if they feel that the A&E should stay open there’s nothing stopping Vaughan Gething convening a meeting with the NHS Chief Executive and Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board and telling them so.
There are two possibilities here of course, and both are equally scary. 1) Labour politicians are trying to deliberately mislead people about who is in charge of the NHS in Wales. 2.) Labour politicians are themselves confused about what is devolved and what isn’t.
I’m now leaning towards the former option because despite receiving an avalanche of messages on social media pointing out that Labour do run the Welsh NHS, yesterday the politicians were at it again.
A group of Labour AMs and MPs uploaded a picture of themselves holding a ‘Save Our A&E sign’ outside Royal Glamorgan Hospital.
The picture included two AMs, Huw Irranca-Davies and Mick Antoniw, who were essentially campaigning against their own co-workers at the Senedd.
Working together with Welsh Assembly members, MP’s and the Local Authority to ensure the best possible health service provision for the residents of RCT. We’re working to save A & E services in Royal Glamorgan Hospital. pic.twitter.com/uBtfl5fCo1
— Beth Winter MP (@BethWinterMP) February 1, 2020
It’s one of the most politically brazen things I’ve ever seen and almost Trumpian in its manipulation of people’s political ignorance.
It’s particularly disappointing as it’s a political move whose success depends entirely on voters’ confusion about who runs the health service in Wales.
According to a BBC/ICM survey in 2014, only 48% correctly identified that health was a devolved matter.
This campaign not only depends on that confusion but also seeks to entrench it. Seeing Labour politicians campaigning against an NHS run by Labour will only mislead people further, to Labour’s benefit.
To his credit, in a press conference on Monday, First Minister Mark Drakeford called for Labour politicians to stay away from the campaign.
However his reasoning that the decision was not for politicians but “for clinicians and the board to carry out” was no better than Dawn Bowden’s claim that the NHS was nothing to do with the Welsh Government.
We’ve been here before. In 2017 then-Education Minister Leighton Andrews had to resign after campaigning against the closure of a primary school in his Rhondda constituency.
First Minister Carwyn Jones told him his campaign was in direct opposition to guidance over shutting schools with surplus places issued by himself as Minister.
Mark Drakeford needs to show a similar gumption and make it clear that Labour politicians cannot actively campaign against an NHS run by their own political party. Whether he can or will do so will tell us a lot about his strength or weakness as First Minister.
And if Labour politicians want to go rogue and continue to campaign despite that, they need to make it clear that they’re ultimately campaigning against their own Labour-led Welsh Government.
There is a wider danger here of course than just politicians misleading their constituents.
With an ITV/YouGov poll last night showing that 24% would vote to scrap the Assembly given the opportunity, Labour are putting devolution itself in great jeaporady.
If people don’t believe that the Welsh Government has any real control over the NHS and other public services Wales, why should they retain what they will see as a pointless layer of bureacracy?
And with the Welsh Government gone, so too would go Labour’s last remaining national electoral stronghold in the UK.
To retain devolution, Labour needs to make clear that whatever their own strengths and weaknesses, the power to deliver better public services reside within Welsh devolution.
And they need to make the case that it’s better to have the power there, than over at Westminster. Passing the buck to Westminster or the Health Boards at the first sign of trouble doesn’t do that.