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Local Elections in England: an impending change of direction in UK health policy?

As the United Kingdom continues to count down to one of its most significant general elections in over a decade, which seems likely to welcome the first change of government in 14 years, the UK public had their first chance to demonstrate their voting intentions in the recent local elections, mayoral elections and latest by-election held on 2 May. As expected, the results have been of significant interest to the country’s political landscape and the future of the healthcare sector.

Despite further evidence that we are likely to see a Labour Government from 2025, there is still uncertainty over how large their majority will be (if any), what this will mean for health policy, and the position of the UK health system, particularly compared to its European partners.

What does a Labour win signal for the National Elections?

While local elections, by-elections and mayoral elections must always be analysed in the context of when they are set, the significance of the most recent election cannot be downplayed due to its proximity to the upcoming general election.

In total 2,728 positions were voted for by the English public in the local elections. The Labour Party won a total of 1,158 local council seats, while the Conservatives saw a significant decline of more than 470 seats. The scale of the Conservative losses was summed up most succinctly in the Blackpool South by-election, where the Labour Party candidate saw a victory with a 26% vote swing, the third highest since WWII, demonstrating the potential danger that Tory MPs in large majority constituencies could face at the end of the year.

The negative performance of the Conservatives had been partly anticipated by Sunak’s team, though this has indicated how damaging the upcoming general election could be. In the past months, the gap between Labour and Conservatives in the polls has been almost 20%. Despite this, the Conservative Party took hope from the suggestion that the results would translate poorly at the general election for the Labour Party, leaving them short of the majority they desire. This is in part due to the fact that of the 474 seats that Conservatives lost, 186 seats were won by the Labour Party, and the rest distributed to other political parties, such as the Green Party, and independent candidates.

While local elections in England cannot give an accurate image of the national elections, to a certain extent they can showcase the absence of the ‘vote of confidence’ to the Labour Party and indicate the future strengthening of pluralism in parliament, where Liberal Democrats can perform better than the last elections. However, the resignation of Humza Yousaf, the First Minister of Scotland, demonstrates an opportunity for the Labour Party to gain seats from voters who defected to Labour after the disappointment of the SNP.

Healthcare in the UK – an electoral priority

Healthcare is also likely to be a key priority for the next government due to the falling standard of the UK when compared with its European counterparts.

Compared to other European nations, the United Kingdom has increased waiting times for patient access to medicines after their marketing authorisation of 329 days in England and 407 days in Scotland. In comparison, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark facilitated the process and managed to complete it in less than 270 days. EU member states with similar populations to the UK, such as France and Germany, have managed to provide better infrastructure conditions with 8 hospital beds per thousand citizens and 5.9 hospital beds per thousand citizens respectively, whereas the UK offers only 2.5 hospital beds per thousand citizens. The disadvantaged position in which the UK currently is, can be transformed under a new Labour government, to an environment of additional cooperative policies with other European nations where this interaction can translate to more effective health policies inspired by the progress of the European nations.

The Conservatives plan for the NHS back in 2019 has not generated the promised results, despite the increase in funding, the economic stagnation of the UK has further increased the health costs. Whenever the allocation of funds takes place, it does not generate the expected results. The members of the Conservative party have shown continuous support to Rishi Sunak for the upcoming elections and believe that they can improve the NHS and the healthcare sector overall. Focusing on the narrative of the difficult financial situation that the country is overcoming after a couple of years, there is still belief by its members that the party can deliver on the promises that have been made.

Return of Labour: improvement of the healthcare sector

Traditionally, Healthcare and the NHS have been one of the key discussion points in the build-up to a general election. Labour has prided itself on championing the NHS and has often pledged more funding and greater prioritization in its manifesto and policy pledges. The election expected at the end of the year will be no different.

In their Mission for Britain policy document, the Labour Party has identified healthcare as one of its top 5 areas and pledged a new direction in healthcare, with the promotion of innovation and the inclusion of artificial intelligence in many areas of the health sector as well as the facilitation of the introduction of new medicines in the market. Starmer’s party has also paid extra attention to the prevention of diseases through early diagnostic tests, at a time when the country has seen deaths from preventable diseases increase due to  inadequate diagnosis. Lastly, increase in the workforce has been another major priority, where the aim is to see waiting times in hospitals reduced. Overall, Labour leadership is seeking the integration of technology, adjusting to modern times, together with the reintroduction of past practices (for example the family doctor) as the methodology towards more favourable results.

But will this lead to success? The critical question will be about NHS funding , though so far, Labour has been unwilling to put a number to it and has instead noted that this will depend on the economic situation at the time. Whatever the case, we can expect to see the Labour Party committing to significant changes in its approach to healthcare over the coming years and an immediate prioritization of healthcare policy in the first couple of months after the election to bring down the elective backlog. Engagement in health policy pre and immediately post-election could therefore be pivotal.

NHS as the key topic for the next electoral campaign

In 2023 the British Public demonstrated its discontentment with the NHS with the satisfaction rate further falling to 24%, a strong signal to all parties that improvements must be made. It is of high importance to observe whether the British public will accept the current pattern taken by the Conservatives or whether it will support Labour to shift the course of actions to make the improvements needed.

A future Labour government has the potential to further facilitate cooperation among different actors in the healthcare sector, while boosting innovation and highlighting the use of technology. Local or international pharmaceutical and MedTech companies may have the ability to further introduce new innovations into the UK market. At the same time, the NHS could potentially see a way out of the numerous problems it is currently facing. A re-elected Conservative government will guarantee the continuation of the current status quo in healthcare policies dependent on the financial situation of the country. While these events take place the British population continues to voice the need for change. The next set of elections will be able to provide the necessary answers and determine the future of governance as well as the direction that the health sector will follow in the United Kingdom.

Author:
Hermes
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