Baby Numbers and the NHS

This weekend saw the 66th birthday of the NHS. 5 July 1948 was the ‘appointed day’ when Britain’s National Health Service, planned and legislated for over the previous few years years, came into existence. You may not have noticed. It was hardly a national celebration.

One way of marking the anniversary, certainly the most popular on social media, was a new feature on the Labour party’s donations website which claimed to tell you your NHS ‘baby number’. You simply put in a few details – a first name, an email address and a post code. It then presents you with a series of facts and figures showing what the NHS has done since 1948, what it does everyday and, most importantly, where you fit into this.

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It begins with an estimate (a very rough estimate, I think its fair to say) of your ‘baby number’. Using census data it somehow estimated I was the 24,907,784th baby born in the NHS. The difficulty of pinning down the number so precisely should be obvious, not least from the figure that shortly followed saying another five babies had been born in the NHS while I was on the website. You don’t need to be a midwife to know giving birth takes a little longer.

It goes on to tell you ‘your NHS story’ – how long the NHS had been up and running by the time you were born, how old you were (or in my case how many years until I’d be born) when the NHS performed its first heart transplant and delivered its first IVF baby, how old you were when the last Labour government introduced the two-month target for starting cancer treatment. It then gives (estimated) running totals for the thousands of NHS prescriptions handed out, the 100+ people admitted to an A&E and the dozens of ambulances sent out, and the number of births, all in the few minutes you’ve been on the website.

It was described in The Metro as ‘thrilling’ and ‘enthralling’ and as a ‘smart online tool’ by The Independent. The latter went on to describe how clever it is:

“With the General Election a mere 305 days away, the Labour party appears to have made a shrewd manoeuvre in creating a highly shareable game-of-sorts that not only reinforces one of their key policies – to keep the NHS public – but also collects countless email addresses for their database.”

Of course, it does collect email addresses (from which it’s easy to unsubscribe). But I would say it’s clever for a rather different reason. Not so much underscoring a message of ‘keep the NHS public’ (which is a rather creative interpretation of Labour Party policy, to say the least). Rather, within the confines of a necessarily clumsy medium, it does a brilliant job of tying together personal and collective narratives.

One of the defining features of our time is growing cynicism, particularly towards large organisations and public institutions. This often runs counter to our personal dealings with them. The NHS is an uncaring waste of money, but they were wonderful when my dad was taken ill. Parliament is full of greedy scumbags, although my local MP is actually a really good local campaigner. The more removed we are, the more we revert to the default cynicism of the twenty-first century.

If your politics is of an iconoclastic bent then this won’t worry you, as you probably won’t mind seeing trust erode and over time the commitment of politicians to maintaining those public institutions wane. In place of collective provision of public services, the individual (who values the quality service they receive without having to engage in any wider social concern) becomes king and consumerism becomes the governing philosophy of public (or not-so-public) services.

So the Labour Party’s NHS ‘baby number’ widget needs to be seen not simply as a clever trick for harvesting a email addresses ahead of an election, but as a social media tactic for combating the cynicism that comes from the separation of personal and collective narratives of public services. Giving an age to anchor landmarks in the NHS’s history is a startingly intimate way to present a vast story. Presenting the later figures as a rolling count creates a sense of immediacy, perhaps even urgency, to the ongoing work done. And the numbers themselves vividly demonstrate the scale of that work. If the numbers were small, none of it would be impressive.

There are many arguments that could be had about the NHS and how each party’s policies and rhetoric square up. But it’s the bigger picture that’s of most interest to me. The history of our time will either unfold to see cynicism subside and give way to a new era of social democracy (inevitably rather different in some way from that of the mid-late twentieth century) or it will set root and institutions such the NHS will be confined to the history books. The apathy towards many of our political leaders often boils down to a disappointment with the fact they seem to be powerless in the face of this. This time, however, perhaps not.

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