My latest blog post for the People’s History of the NHS website looks at the accusations levelled at Labour leadership contender Owen Smith that he supported NHS privatisation.
Seven decades after the Labour government of Clement Attlee and his Health Minister Aneurin Bevan founded the National Health Service, the party is having a leadership election. While the popularity of the NHS is enduring amongst the British public, in the Labour fold commitment to it is an article of faith. So at this moment, when the party is polarised and ideological purity is prized above all else by many of the membership, it has unsurprisingly become an important issue in the campaign.
Accusations that Jeremy Corbyn’s challenger, Owen Smith, pushed for privatisiation of the NHS have been doing the rounds. They go back to his time as Head of Policy and Government Relations for the major pharmaceutical company Pfizer and then corporate affairs at the biotech company Amgen, before he became an MP in 2010. Inevitably there is scepticism amongst many on the left of connections to big pharma at a time when Amgen was dealing with a US investigation into cancer patient deaths and Pfizer was locked ininternational disputes with governments of the Philippines and South Africa, who were fighting to gain access to cheaper drugs for treating hypertension and AIDS respectively. The Guardian has pointed to the fact Smith took the industry line on use of non-patent drugs in his early days as an MP.
In response, Smith has denied he was a “lobbyist” and suggested it’s in fact a “massive advantage” to know how the private sector works. Meanwhile, supporters point to his role in Labour’s opposition for Pfizer’s take over of British-owned AstraZeneca. In 2014 this was highlighted by the Telegraph, which called him Ed Miliband’s “Pfizer insider” and concluding ” it is not hard to imagine Pfizer’s disappointment that its significant cash investment in Mr Smith might have yielded a better return than this”. Interviews now typically include a statement endorsing the NHS as publicly-owned and free at the point of use.
Disbelief of these reassurances among those who want to #KeepCorbyn are not just a sign of post-truth or post-factual politics or of an inability to understand the way the world really works. Explanations often fall of deaf ears, but this is about more than an unwillingness to listen. This is not an argument over the correct answer, but a fundamental disagreement about the question itself…