Health-service issue ignites Labor's fire in Britain

October 05, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- Neil Kinnock, the garrulous chief of Britain's Labor Party, vowed yesterday to banish "the faithless coldness of the times" and with it John Major and all the other heirs to, and partisans of, the policies of Margaret Thatcher.

The Welshman closed the annual party conference in Brighton with a flash and buoyancy not seen in him or any other Labor leader in years.

He appeared to be certain that Labor had at last found the formula, and the issue, with which to expel the Conservatives from power: He pledged to rescue the National Health Service from its subversion, in Labor's view, through privatization.

When Mrs. Thatcher unveiled her intention some years back to improve the health service by privatizing some of its functions and by encouraging the growth of private health insurance plans, she planted the seeds of fear in the British populace that her intention was to improve it out of existence.

That fear smoldered even as Mrs. Thatcher won three successive elections, as she was cheered for emasculating the powerful industrial labor unions and even as she sold off large government monopolies.

But the health service, "the symbol of British achievement in the world," as one Labor Party member described it yesterday, was something else. Polls have shown that no institution, probably not even the monarchy, is more cherished.

A recent poll by the independent Henley Center revealed that of all the major areas of government responsibility, the National Health Service was the last thing for which Britons would be willing to see funding cut.

In recent months, as Labor crept ahead of the Conservatives in the polls, then slid back to parity, Mr. Kinnock and his shadow Cabinet have made some political progress by broadcasting their suspicions that privatization of the health service as a Conservative aim had not gone away with Mrs. Thatcher, turned out last year by leaders of her own party.

Mr. Major and other ministers of his government have denied repeatedly and vehemently that this is their intention. John Murphy, a spokesman for the Health Ministry contacted yesterday for elucidation on a minor point, was eager to answer questions he wasn't even asked, saying, "The National Health Service is not being privatized. It will remain funded out of general taxation. It will remain free."

The potential in the issue of public health became suddenly evident Thursday during Robin Cook's speech to the party conference. Mr. Cook is the shadow minister of health, which means that should Labor win the general election, which must be held by next spring, he will assume that governmental position.

He promised that in the first 100 days after Labor took office, it would bring back into the system all hospitals and other health-care units -- such as clinics and ambulance services -- that have transformed themselves into what are called "trusts," a status that gives them a freedom in hiring and firing that hospitals under the regular system don't have.

The trusts, a Labor spokesman said, were simply another way of taking the health service apart, another way of thrusting the market system into an area Labor would like to see it kept out of.

Mr. Cook also promised the return of free eye examinations and more ample funding for the health service, which reportedly is in an advanced state of deterioration.

His speech filled the assembly with excitement. Nothing else so animated party rank and file -- not Labor's promise to put more women into big government jobs, not its threat of euthanasia for the House of Lords, not its promise to improve the criminal justice system.

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