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Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, has warned his party to avoid “nostalgia” about Britain’s NHS, saying it needed reform rather than just extra money.
Streeting prompted criticism from the left of the party after he compared the NHS to a “leaky bucket” that soaked up ever more taxpayer money.
The shadow minister told The Sun newspaper: “You can’t just keep on pouring ever-increasing amounts of money into a leaky bucket, you’ve got to deal with the bucket itself.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves have told shadow ministers to avoid uncosted promises as the party’s leadership tries to demonstrate fiscal discipline ahead of the general election expected later this year.
Streeting reflected that message in his comments. “It’s not right to keep on asking people on low to middle incomes to pay high taxes when they’re struggling,” he said. “And it’s not right that they don’t get much for the money they are putting in.
“There are times when the Labour party is led too heavily into nostalgia,” he told The Sun. “It would be the easiest thing in the world to go into the next general election just saying ‘worst crisis in NHS history’, ‘you can’t trust the Tories on the NHS’, ‘you’ve got 24 hours to save the NHS’ and by the way here’s a nice sepia film of Nye Bevan.”
But Labour’s drive for fiscal restraint has prompted concerns that a Starmer-led government will struggle to demonstrate major improvements in public services.
Momentum, the left-wing pressure group, said: “The British Medical Journal called funding ‘the elephant in the room’ when it comes to the NHS. Wes Streeting is utterly wrong to deny the importance of investing in our NHS.”
Streeting said he had learned on a recent tour of Australia and the Far East how advances in medical technology could help bolster efficiency in the service.
“We’ve got to improve the productivity of the NHS,” he said. “That’s not the fault of the staff, because actually it’s the staff who are blowing the whistle on this and complaining very loudly. It’s the way the bureaucracy is.”
Potential improvements include greater use of technology to improve the “basic organisation of the system”, he argued.
Labour’s plans for the NHS are facing greater scrutiny with health set to be a key battleground in the next general election.
The NHS is facing one of its toughest winters on record, with a wave of industrial action by health staff that started in December 2022 compounding pressure on the service, with about 1.3mn operations and appointments cancelled since the strikes began.
Streeting has previously said the NHS must “reform or die”, warning the public is currently “paying more and getting less”.
The shadow Labour minister has also taken a more pragmatic stance than some of his predecessors towards the role of the private sector, endorsing the use of private hospitals as a short-term measure to reduce NHS waiting lists.