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Starmer on Sunday: Health Of The Nation Prioritised Over Health Of The Party

Sunday morning politics shows have become a key battleground for those at the top of the British political pyramid, and today it was Leader of the Opposition’s turn to set out his stance on key issues, such as the survival of the NHS and the Scotland’s reform to the Gender Recognition Act.


Sir Keir Starmer has been sure to separate himself from the Labour Party’s previous leadership, which saw tension between the left and right of the party bubble over into civil war, ultimately resulting in the resignation and subsequent removal of former leader Jeremy Corbyn from Labour.


Appearing on BBC’s new flagship political programme, ‘Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg’, the Labour leader once again reiterated both his commitment to ensuring the return of a Labour government in the next general election and the ways in which he differed from his democratic socialist predecessor.


Of the NHS, Starmer argued that the service should not be “treated as a shrine rather than a service”, claiming that no potential reform was off the table for his Shadow Cabinet. The NHS’s continued existence as free at the point of access was central to Corbyn’s plans, with the former leader presenting a leaked dossier as proof that the Conservatives had put the NHS “up for sale” to American pharmaceutical companies, emphasising his commitment to nationalised healthcare.


Since then, the NHS has faced increased pressure, with a backlog caused in part by the Covid-19 pandemic reaching 7 million in November 2022. On top of this, ambulance response times in England have hit a new high, with waits in A&E wards across the country also increasing dramatically. In the wake of this new data, all parties have been clear on the need for reform across the service.


Starmer believes that Labour’s former commitment to the NHS turned into belligerence, writing in The Sunday Telegraph that under his leadership “Labour will make…hard choices”, including “unsentimental reform”.


Whilst there is no doubt that something must be done about an NHS in decline, there are worries amongst those within Labour regarding rumours about a heavier reliance upon private healthcare. Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting, has not been shy in presenting his idea of using private hospitals to reduce waiting times and the NHS’s backlog. Many on the Labour left are ideologically opposed to such action, fearing that this contributes to what they see as attempts by the Conservatives to ultimately privatise the NHS, a fear that is also extant amongst health workers.


This was not the only area in which Starmer attempted to court the centre-right of British politics in his interview with Laura Kuenssberg, voicing his concerns about the Scottish Parliament’s recent reform to the Gender Recognition Act.


Under the new legislation, which could yet be blocked by the House of Commons, people aged 16 and over would be able to self-identify as a gender different to the one they were assigned at birth through a Gender Recognition Certificate. Those opposed to the law believed this to be too young for people to change their legal gender, an argument behind which Starmer today threw his weight behind; when Kuenssberg pushed Starmer on whether he thought people aged 16 are old enough to know that they wished to change gender, the Opposition leader replied “No, I don't think you are”.


Not only will this create tension between England and Scotland, of which there is already plenty, but may also drive a wedge between Scottish Labour and their English counterparts. Almost all of Labour’s MSPs voted in favour of the finalised bill, in spite of some concerns as to how changing this legislation may impact other laws, such as the UK Equalities Act, in other parts of the Union.


Starmer remained quiet on whether he would support a legal challenge against the Gender Reform Act’s reform, but was keen to emphasise that he wished to “[m]odernise the legislation” through “respectful debate”, hinting at a degree of indignation at the way in which the Scottish Parliament had handled the issue thus far.


Yet again, this represents a change of position from Corbyn’s Labour Party, with the 2019 Labour Party Manifesto containing a pledge to reform the Gender Recognition Act which was very similar to that recently passed in Scotland, promising to bring in self-identification for transgender individuals across the UK. Starmer’s shift of position on this, too, represents a marked step towards the centre of the British political spectrum.


With over a year to go until the next General Election, barring any political upheaval that demands a snap election, Starmer is clearly testing the electorate’s views on key issues that could sway them in a public vote. Given the rightward shift of the Conservatives over the last few years, this was always likely to happen, with Labour trying to sweep up the votes of those swing voters with more socially liberal views than those on offer within the current government.


Starmer has managed to quieten many dissenting voices within his party, but he’ll be hoping that his plans for the National Health Service doesn’t leave him amputated from key voters on the left.


Cover image available from BBC News

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