Last Sunday the National Health Action Party (NHA Party) revealed their first set of candidates who will contest seats at the General Election next year. I went to the party’s conference at Conway Hall in London and interviewed Dave Ash, who is contesting Sutton and Cheam, one of 50for15’s key marginals.
The National Health Action Party was launched in late 2012 by a group of doctors, nurses, and campaigners to highlight and fight against privatisations within the NHS. The party’s Action Plan calls for the abolition of “competition and the market within the NHS with its huge and unnecessary costs and bureaucracy,” the end of prescription charges, and reforms in other policy areas, such as launching larger house building work projects to be paid for by scrapping HS2.
In the European Parliament elections in May 2014, the NHA Party won 23,253 votes in London, the only region where the party stood. To put that number into perspective, Liberal Democrat and former health minister Paul Burstow MP, the candidate Dave Ash is standing against in Sutton and Cheam, won 22,156 votes in the constituency in 2010.
Ash, a technical manager, was one of a dozen candidates unveiled by the National Health Action Party at their party conference. NHA Party candidates are standing in constituencies where they have campaigned against hospital closures and/or in seats with prominent opponents: David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt will all find themselves on the ballot against the NHA Party.
Speaking to 50for15 at the conference, Dave reflected how important it was for him to challenge politicians: “I think some of the things that have been going on locally, with MPs being less than honest can’t be allowed to stand without doing something about it.”
A prominent campaigner in the local “Keep Our St Helier Hospital” organisation, Dave is standing against a former health minister in the marginal seat. Sutton and Cheam is 17th on the target list of the Conservatives, and is the type of seat the party needs to win to hold a majority after the election. The coalition partners are pitted against each other in the seat: the Liberal Democrat tally of votes was only 1,608 ahead of the Conservative candidate in 2010. The presence of a party campaigning against privatisations within the NHS could actually help the Conservatives by taking away votes from the parties to their left.
Dave, who stood in May’s local elections, sees his support coming from across the political spectrum, however. Commenting to 50for15, he said, “There were people who had voted for me [at the council elections] who had voted before for every other flavour of party which was a bit of a surprise to me. I think that ultimately the need for healthcare is universal, it doesn’t matter what colour flag you particularly align yourself with, you are definitely going to need the health service at some point or another.”
Asked whether tying his campaign to a political mast might be a more effective way of championing his cause, Dave was disparaging of the record of all the three major parties: “As I see it, none of the three major parties have even made the right noises as to doing enough to return the NHS to true public ownership.”
Before announcing the NHA Party candidates, co-leader Dr Clive Peedell said the party could have a huge impact next May: “If we could get even just one or two MPs elected, the public would know there’d be representatives in Parliament on whom they could always rely to act purely in the best interests of patients and of the NHS, without letting political ideology get in the way. For too long the NHS has been used as a political football. In the event of a hung parliament, it’s possible that we could be in a strong position to influence health policy.”
An elected NHA Party MP would truly be earth-shattering to the political classes, but even without winning seats, small parties can have a disproportionate effect on close races. In the 2010 General Election count in Camborne and Redruth (one of our fifty) the difference in votes between Conservative and winner George Eustice with Liberal Democrat runner-up Julia Goldsworthy was 66. The Cornish nationalist party, Mebyon Kernow received 775 votes: their candidacy (as well as that of the other smaller parties) could reasonably have affected who won the contest calculated by the first past the post system.
Votes are not the only way a smaller party can scupper their larger rivals. Parties such as NHA can force issues – particularly local ones – onto the agenda of local press and debates at hustings, and into the minds of voters. By pushing these questions to the fore, candidates for smaller parties can attempt to force candidates from the larger parties to make damaging remarks.
So in a seat such as Sutton and Cheam, where the outcome of 2015 is still very much up for grabs, the presence of the NHA Party is likely to have a large impact; irrespective of the support the party receives at the ballot box in May. No wonder Dave he finds politics “thoroughly terrifying, exciting and fascinating all at the same time.”