Despite a recent public display of consensus by Labour over ‘Devo Manc’ – the plans to devolve the £6 billion worth of health and social care funding to Greater Manchester – the saga in the build up to the united front indicated an uncomfortable level of discord in the priorities of the Parliamentary Labour Party and Labour’s grassroots.
Whilst Lord Peter Smith, Labour’s chair of Greater Manchester Combined Authority and one of those who brokered the deal, called the plans a “defining moment in Greater Manchester’s devolution journey”, the headline comment by Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham was that the move would create a “Swiss cheese NHS where some bits of the system are operating to different rules or have different powers and freedoms”.
More privately, Burnham was said to be “furious” over the situation and the plans. This was a view adopted by the majority of Labour’s 22 MPs in Greater Manchester, who were alleged by the Manchester Evening News to have been “winding themselves up all day” about the plans. Lisa Nandy, the MP for Wigan, said that the deal amounted to “contempt” for the people of Greater Manchester.
Under the plans, which were confirmed in a Memorandum of Understanding countersigned by the Chancellor George Osborne and the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the Labour-led council arranged with NHS England and the Coalition Government for 12 NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups, 15 NHS providers and 10 local authorities to take control of the budget for health and social care. This would be the first deal of its kind in the UK, and one of the most substantial changes to the NHS in its 67-year history.
Given the public criticism and the private outrage, how did it come to be that the region’s Labour MPs backed the plan? Although the full details of what went on in the “stormy meeting” that took place between the 22 MPs and the eight Labour council leaders is unlikely to be made public, one can assume that it is unlikely that the Labour MPs chose to bury the hatchet purely because they were persuaded to believe in the proposals.
What is clear is that the Labour frontbench were very upset that the local councillors had forged a deal with the Coalition Government without their input. What is also clear is that the fallout from public disunity, as well as being seen to act against the interests of local people, would be considered even more damaging for Labour.
It is most likely the case that Labour found that, in an election where they made the NHS the key issue, the costs of acting against policy determined by grassroots as beneficial to their region was worse than taking a stance against a policy that the Conservatives helped create.
Whilst it is positive that Labour eventually saw this, it serves as a warning that if they want to be seen as a viable, positive force ahead of the General Election, they must put people over politics.