I’ve been asked why I am a Labour supporter. I’ll tell you why, and the NHS is at the core of it.
I came from a working class family – both my parents had grown up in Council houses, and when I was born we stayed in my grandparents house. In the early 80’s they struggled to give my sister and I the best they could provide for, by means of hard work and saving. We didn’t have fancy holidays abroad, but we didn’t really lack anything, and my Dad’s work in the construction industry meant we moved around a bit, doing up properties as we went. I got the chance to go to a private school as part of the Government’s assisted places scheme, which I still regard as an excellent education, and it was a shame that Labour abolished the scheme in 1997. We lived in a cathedral city in south-west England, so much of the problems of the 1980’s didn’t touch us in a way they devastated other communities. We had finally moved to a wonderful house in the country, we kept chickens and had fields for horses and dogs. Then came the Lawson recession of the late 1980s.
By this time my Dad had thrown everything into his own construction company, and things had been going well – we employed 50+ men, skilled and unskilled and I was working for the firm as well. However, almost overnight work dried up. Our existing clients – the large construction firms were withholding and delaying payments without reason, and we had a cash-flow crisis. The bank, which up till now had been so very helpful suddenly withdrew our umbrella, now it was raining. They wanted immediate payment of £30k, and froze our overdraft – it doesn’t sound much now, but in comparison I had recently bought my first brand new car, a Ford Sierra for just £5,400. We couldn’t pay our workforce, and our suppliers were suddenly demanding immediate payment for the materials we had purchased on credit terms (presumably on the advice of their banks). We had no choice but voluntary liquidation for the business, and to put our dream home on the market. We had lost everything.
My Dads health had suffered, even before this he had heart trouble, due to the stress of running the business. However, in order to make ends meet, he had to go back to manual work on construction sites – those that were still going. His doctor had advised him against this, but he had no alternative-the council couldn’t help us with housing, and the only way he could make the money needed to house and feed us was to put his health at risk. However, we had the great NHS, didn’t we?
At around this time, the Conservative Government had started yet another round of pressure on the public sector – government spending had to be cut to get us out of recession (sound familiar?) . As part of this drive for “greater efficiency” and being able to “do more with less”, was a review of the ambulance service. After all, why should we have ambulance stations open and staffed in parts of the country where there is less demand for them? Where they may only be called out a few times a week? If you think an Air ambulance would cover these areas, think again-the NHS doesn’t have money to burn! So in several parts of rural Devon, ambulance stations were closed, and coverage arranged from nearby towns and cities. This might have made sense for some communities, but Devon doesn’t have a large network of dual carriageways – many windy twisting roads, and one could see that these cut backs were a disaster waiting to happen.
After nearly two years of working long hours in all weathers, moving from site to site, Dad was working on an MoD site on Dartmoor (it was a ‘secure’ site, he had to undergo a vetting procedure, and apart from some worries about his Irish background-this was the early 90’s remember) he had finally found a steady long term contract. He was, however, still self-employed, and therefore had no rights, no pension, no sick pay and no death benefits.
I can still remember the last time I saw my Dad. He was dropping me off at the crappy job I had taken at a petrol filling station-one that was later to have a devastating effect on my mental health when I was unable to find anything better. Soon after I had got home at 3pm, I got a call from Dad’s boss. “Hi, is that John? Michael’s son?”, “Yes, who’s this?”, “This is your Dad’s boss, I’m afraid he’s dead, bye”. I can think of lots of ways to find out some of the most devastating news, but not many worse than that. Much of the rest of the day was a blur, I don’t know if it was my mum who contacted her brother, but he managed to get us a lift to Derryford Hospital (Dad had the family car at MoD Wrangaton). One thing I do remember is the Doctor at the hospital telling us what had happened. My Dad had collapsed with pains in his chest. An Ambulance was called, but it had to come from Plymouth. There was trouble finding the site, as the crew were unfamiliar with the area. They didnt have the proper equipment. By the time they arrived at A&E, my Dad was dead. “If only we had got to him sooner,” said the Doctor. “There’s always something we can do as long as we can get to the patient quickly.”
That was the moment I vowed to do everything I could to stop this from happening again. I blamed myself for not seeing these changes for what they were-cynical cuts without any thought on the consequences for ordinary people. I became angry-at the NHS, at the Government, at myself. My Dad had died of a massive heart attack at the young age of 46.
I knew I could not turn back the clock, but I would make sure this never happened again. That never again would purely financial considerations come before need. I started supporting the Labour Party. They were the only party committed to the NHS. They were committed to fairness, to equity, to social justice.
Now, nearly 20 years later, and again we have a Tory government. One that is bent on reducing the public sector, by any means. For no other reason than it exists. Perhaps because of the things which happened then, they gave assurances about front line services in the NHS. Assurances which mean nothing – can you trust a government where the Deputy Prime Minister openly admits to lying to the electorate before polling day? Where a Prime Minister can announce plans for council house tenants and claim he’s “relaxed” about the fact that he denied these plans before the election? Tory promises on the NHS are not worth the paper they’re written on. The Government’s actions in the last 3 months have show us that much.
Now nobody’s perfect, but at least I know that Labour will do their best for the country and all its people.