The opening statements allowed candidates to outline their party’s position on the NHS. The incumbent Liberal Democrat, Stephen Williams, was a notable no-show – his empty chair perhaps symbolic of his position in the race in Bristol West, and of the Liberal Democrat’s usual approach to honouring commitments.
Labour could offer only tweaks and half-measures with candidate, Thangam Debbonaire, rather puffing herself out with talk of profit caps and a promise to repeal the Health and Social Care Act. Contrastingly, Darren Hall offered a composed yet stirring opening: the Green Party will remove the profit motive entirely from the NHS and put an end to the costly disaster of PFI. He outlined the Green Party NHS rescue plan, to not only repeal the Health and Social Care Act immediately, but to oppose the threat of TTIP in all its forms, and to support the campaign for an NHS Reinstatement Bill that will return the NHS to its rightful owners.
The open format allowed an immediate question from the floor, challenging establishment rhetoric that there is ‘no money in the pot’, pointing to the £100 billion cost of Trident, as well as the money that is miraculously found for costly and unjust wars. Unsurprisingly the Labour and Conservative candidates towed their party lines to renew Trident, declared ‘militarily useless’ by the ex-commander of the Navy. Green Party candidate Darren Hall distinguished himself, articulating clearly the Green Party’s total opposition to Trident. Darren further called for an end to the brainwashing of the austerity agenda. Debt currently stands at 90% of GDP, yet when the NHS was first created after WWII debt stood at 250%. Darren asserted that it is pure myth that there is no money, to loud cheers and applause from the audience. Investing in our health service by creating fairer taxation is economical in the long-term and is Green Party policy.
One questioner presented the tricky question of how the NHS can be improved aside from simply hurling money at it. Whilst many of the candidates talked about the need for more transparency, it was not clear how their parties would tackle this. Darren Hall was clear on the need to tackle vested interests, pointing out the huge numbers of Tory and Labour MPs and peers who stand to personally benefit from the private healthcare sector (link to report). He also focused on where funds are allocated – 95% of the health budget is currently spent on an illness service – much more needs to be allocated for prevention.
On the subject of NHS staffing, one questioner pointed to the heavy dependence of the NHS on staff from countries across the world, challenging the UKIP candidate, as well as Labour’s apparent pandering to UKIP on this, especially in light of the Labour Party 'Controls on Immigration'. Darren Hall offered a welcome relief from this culture of fear, pointing out that 1 in 7 people globally are now migrants, and that migration has a net positive effect for the UK. Rather than being afraid of our neighbours we need to understand that we exist as part of a migratory system and need to engage and move forwards positively.
Another area of concern was that of mental health, with one questioner asking when it will be treated as a ‘normal illness’ and given the investment it needs. Darren highlighted the injustice that someone with a mental illness has a 28% chance of receiving treatment, whereas a person with diabetes has a 95% chance. Reflecting on his experience as a Samaritan, Darren identified talking therapies as effective and inexpensive. Yet instead of investing in these low-cost early intervention measures, the coalition government’s austerity programme has made particularly deep cuts to mental health community services over the past five years. The Conservative candidate’s defence rang hollow as she applauded her party for the lip service it has paid to recognising mental health as equal to physical, but simultaneously acknowledging ‘that’s not the best answer, but that’s me’.
As the Conservative and Labour candidates made their closing statements, audience members heckled more of their empty rhetoric. Darren was the last to speak and was able to offer a final message of hope, of a more equal society where wellbeing is valued, promoted through access to green environments and working systems of transport, and backed up by the reinstatement of a world-class NHS. The audience applauded, seemingly concurring that, whilst the Greens may not be about to run this country, one more Green voice in parliament is one sure step in the right direction.
[With thanks to Bharat Kunwar for providing photos for this event]