Louise Irvine’s article in the Guardian:
She has beaten Jeremy Hunt in the courts but Dr Louise Irvine is now determined to unseat the health secretary at the ballot box. Irvine, who is standing for the National Health Action party , is giving it her best shot. “All change is possible,” she insists. “You owe it to people to fight to win.”
The 59-year-old GP first clashed with Hunt in 2013 as chair of the successful campaign to stop casualty and maternity unit service closures at Lewisham Hospital in south-east London. She then stood against him at the 2015 general election but garnered just 8.5% of votes, coming fourth in the constituency of South West Surrey, behind Labour and ahead of the Liberal Democrats.
This time, Irvine has the backing of a cross-party group of local activists who selected her as the progressive alliance candidate as a tactic to increase the chance of ousting Hunt. To this end local Green, Liberal Democrat and Labour party members have offered to campaign on her behalf – a move that prompted the Labour party to expel three of its members last week. The Labour, Lib Dems and Ukip national parties are all fielding candidates.
Is her bid to topple the health secretary personal? Yes and no: there’s no hate there, she offers, but he doesn’t seem to care. “People don’t really believe that he cares enough and you need somebody who cares and recognises the problem and is seen to act.” During the 2015 campaign, she says that Hunt accused her of “scaremongering” about threats to the NHS. Two years on, she points to a slew of indicators showing things getting worse: hospital, A&E and ambulance waiting times; trolley waits; access to mental health services and staffing levels, to name but a few. “He has to be challenged; he has not been a good steward,” she stresses.
Irvine sits on the executive of the NHA, a party co-founded five years ago by the former independent MP for Wyre Forest, Dr Richard Taylor, in the wake of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, which extended a market-based approach to the provision of NHS services in England. With more than 6,000 members UK-wide and just one councillor, its core mission is to see the NHS restored to a publicly funded, publicly provided and publicly accountable health service, though Irvine stresses that the party’s focus is on health in the widest sense.
Flagship commitments in the party’s manifesto include an annual minimum increase in NHS funding of 4% per year, equivalent to around £6bn, free personal social care in England and ending privatisation. To achieve the latter, the party wants to repeal legislation supporting markets in the NHS, including the Health and Social Care Act 2012 covering England. “You don’t need a market to provide quality, cost-effective care” says Irvine.
She argues that removing competitive tendering and competition from the health service could save billions. As an example, she lists the costly and time-consuming steps clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) take to award contracts through competitive tendering. There can also be legal costs related to disputes over tendering decisions. Virgin Care, for example, is suing NHS England, Surrey county council and the county’s six CCGs after losing a contract to provide children’s services.
On free personal social care in England, Irvine cites a recent experience of writing a detailed letter to ensure a patient with severe and complex health problems could receive personal social care as part of their continuing health care needs – a request subsequently turned down. “I hardly see anybody who actually qualifies for social care for healthcare problems. We say if somebody is there feeding you, changing you, giving you medication, helping you move around because you have healthcare needs, that’s healthcare, so make it part of healthcare.” How would the party’s commitments be funded? It wants to see the reinstatement of the 50p rate of tax and Irvine also cites reversing cuts in corporation tax. Don’t expect her to go into detail over costing though; after all, it’s not as if her party, with only five potential MPs, is going to form a government any time soon. “I’m not going to be in government,” she says. “It’s not my job to find out how every penny is found.”
Irvine will be canvassing for votes in an area that came to public attention earlier this year after the Tory leader of Surrey county council highlighted pressures on social care budget as a result of cuts. Ask her how she intends to court 28,000 Tory voters who gave Hunt a huge majority in 2015, and she tells you she believes local concerns about the NHS will be high on their list of priorities. “If we are talking about the possibility of the NHS being dismantled as a public service and we’ve seen it declining, that decline is happening in Surrey too. People are seeing it, people are feeling it and people are concerned about it. And I think those concerns are ones I will address – without scaremongering. I don’t need to; I just need to quote the facts.”
She feels the party has a duty to “sound a warning” about the direction of travel, because “when something has gone, it is very difficult to get it back.” Down the line, Irvine fears the NHS may lose crucial “middle-class buy-in”, with more people turning to private health insurance.
Last week, a leak of Labour’s draft manifesto revealed promises to give the NHS more than £6bn extra in annual funding through increasing income tax on the top 5% of earners and increasing tax on private medical insurance. Other commitments include an extra £8bn for social care and repealing the Health and Social Care Act. Speaking before Labour’s official manifesto launch, Irvine welcomed the proposals but said she wanted greater clarity on Labour’s stance on reversing privatisation.
Aside from her frontline experience of working as a GP for almost 30 years, Irvine – the eldest of six children born in Scotland to two Labour-voting teachers – has also accrued a strong track record as a campaigner and activist: she sits on the British Medical Association council; serves as secretary of the Medical Practitioners’ Union, and is also the elected co-chair of Health Campaigns Together, an umbrella organisation of NHS campaigning groups.
She firmly believes that their work has influenced Labour’s general election proposals. Jeremy Corbyn has promised an extra £37bn over the next parliament to take 1 million patients off NHS waiting lists by 2020 and has told nurses, who have voted to ballot for strike action over pay, that it will lift the 1% pay cap. Had Labour come out with proposals like that five years ago, the NHA may have never been formed, she quips.
Given that the NHA wants a change of government, why stand against Labour? Irvine says her party is only fielding five candidates, (it was originally six prior to the decision of Jack Monroe to step down last week) and moreover it would never stand against Labour in a marginal, says Irvine who has voted for Labour and the Greens in the past. “If I get elected, I will work with progressive people in parliament, whether that be Labour, Greens or the SNP – who have been pretty good on these issues too – and I would hope they would respect me as someone who has got something special to contribute,” she explains.
Overturning Hunt’s majority is not “inconceivable”, she insists with enviable optimism. Ask her what her party’s co-founder Richard Taylor achieved while serving as an MP between 2001 and 2010, and she will point to the expertise he offered as a “respected, knowledgeable NHS champion”.
She refers to the Greens’ Caroline Lucas as a more recent example of a lone MP seen to be making a difference. “People say well, if you get elected so what? I think having one person in parliament whose main focus is to champion the NHS gives energy to that issue in a way that nothing else does.” She adds: “I would also represent my constituents and do all the other things an MP should do.”
Family: Married to a retired paediatrician. Two grown-up children.
Education: Harlaw Academy, Aberdeen; Aberdeen University, degree in medicine; Kings College, University of London, MSc in general practice.
Career: 2002-present: GP trainer and programme director for GP training, Lewisham, south London; 1995 to present: GP partner, Amersham Vale Practice, Lewisham; various part-time GP jobs in west of Scotland then London when children were young; 1983-85: volunteer primary care doctor, Nicaragua (sponsored by Scottish Medical Aid for Nicaragua); pre-registration house officer posts in Glasgow and East Kilbride; three-year GP training, west Scotland.
Public life: executive member, NHA party; member BMA council; member, BMA GPs committee; secretary, Medical Practitioners’ Union, co-chair, Health Campaigns Together; chair, Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign she founded in 2012; founded the successful New School Campaign for a new secondary school in Lewisham in 2000; set up ArtsLift mental health project to enable people with mental health problems to access adult education arts classes in Lewisham; helped set up charity Scottish Medical Aid for Nicaragua in 1980.
Interests: Cooking, allotment gardening, cinema, walking in the Scottish highlands and islands.