This interview first appeared in the PartiesOnTheFringe.com: “If you don’t fight, you’re definitely going to lose” – interview with Louise Irvine of National Health Action Party
For someone who’s taking on Jeremy Hunt in the general election, Dr Louise Irvine is remarkably calm. Come May, she’ll be battling for votes as part of the National Health Action party (NHA) in Hunt’s South West Surrey constituency, which is the very definition of a safe Conservative seat. The Tories run every level of government there and Hunt won in 2010 with an outright majority.
But Irvine (pictured above, left) wants to take Hunt for task for what she and her party, which is standing against privatisation and cuts to health services, perceive as the ravaging of the NHS by the Health Secretary and his party. “People assume the NHS is going to be there for them,” she says. “But we’re beginning to see examples of privatisation, combined with shrinkage of funding for the NHS. They’re cutting into the actual ability of the service to provide now.”
The NHS needs a 4% funding increase each year to cope with increasing demand but has only seen increases of under 1% under the coalition, and nurses and midwives went on strike last year against what they say is a 15% real terms pay cut over the last five years.
The controversial, to say the least, Health and Social Care Act draws particular critique. The government’s promise of no top-down reorganisation was a “complete lie”, she says. “Almost all royal colleges were against the Act, including the Royal College of GPs,” who were given more power by the Act.
Irvine, a GP in South London, remains considered as she delivers ultimatums to Hunt.
She has never met him, but would like to debate him. “I’d be fairly comfortable in that territory. I don’t think he knows much beyond sound-bites. Somebody should be challenging him.”
The NHA was founded in 2012 by Clive Peedell and Richard Taylor, a retired doctor and former MP. Taylor was independent MP for Wyre Forest between 2001 and 2010, when he stood as part of a campaign against the closure of the accident and emergency department at Kidderminster Hospital, which is in the Wyre Forest constituency.
The NHA’s main policies all concern the NHS – they want to repeal the Health and Social Care Act, and to exclude the NHS from TTip, the trade deal between the EU and the US that would allow US companies to compete for NHS contracts. Their policies also extend more widely, however, to what Irvine calls the “social determination health” – the idea that health is affected by all sorts of economic and social factors.
Irvine comes from the same kind of campaigning background as Taylor. She led the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign in 2012-2013. The campaign against the closure of Lewisham Hospital’s emergency and maternity units attracted tens of thousands of supporters on demonstrations and defeated the Health Secretary in court. Both the High Court and the Court of Appeal ruled that Hunt acted outside his powers when he tried to slash the hospital services.
(Demonstrators march in the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, photo by Lisa Larsson)
Irvine wants to take that campaigning spirit to Surrey. “It’s a very important motto that if you don’t fight, you’re definitely going to lose. If you do fight, you might lose but you might also win. If you think something’s wrong, give it a go.”
In her election campaign she hopes that confronting difficult issues and reaching out to people will see her support snowball, as it did in Lewisham. “If we start to raise some of the issues there that no-one’s talking about, like mental health care or care for elderly people – there are food banks in every town in Surrey – then I think I can win.”
She understands that it is difficult to persuade people to vote for small parties, and says that she can understand tactical voting but “it’s hardly inspiring is it? Voting for the party that’s least bad.”
“I want to say to people they can make a difference, but you have to back someone who actually really cares about the community and local services and people’s lives in the wider sense.”
“You can’t work as a GP without realising the impact of social factors on health”
Irvine grew up in Scotland, and worked as a GP in Lanarkshire during the Thatcher years. Whilst she was there, the Lanarkshire steel mills were closed down. “I remember men in their mid-fifties who’d only ever worked in the steel industry coming to see me because they were depressed, working class men in tears, and feeling really helpless as a young doctor thinking ‘what can I do?’ There wasn’t much counselling. Very little that you could do. I’ll never forget that.”
“You can’t work as a GP without realising the impact of social factors on health. You can’t help your patients if you just look at them purely as a collection of organs.”
Her work has shown her, Irvine says, that “everybody should be political”.
“That’s something I’ve seen change in my campaigns. I try and keep political work and the consulting room separate but I can’t stop someone coming in and saying ‘oh great work there with Lewisham’ and I say ‘yeah, we saved our hospital, but they might come back and then try and close it again’, and they say ‘well, we’ll be ready for them’.”
On 7 May, we’ll see whether South West Surrey was ready for Dr Louise Irvine.
By Matthew Gilley