Against a background of increasingly fevered election speculation, the battle for Manchester Withington is entering a new phase. And I need to be careful what I say, lest my twisted words fuel the incumbent’s propaganda.
Liberal Democrat John Leech was swept into parliament in 2005 by a massive swing from Labour of 17.3 per cent that delivered a wafer thin majority of 667. Two issues won it for the Lib Dems: Iraq and the fate of Christie Hospital. The region’s main cancer hospital and a European centre of excellence, Christie’s treats 40,000 patients each year.
John Leech and the Lib Dems stand accused of scaremongering over a review of cancer care and frightening voters into thinking the hospital was about to be closed. A Lib Dem councillor claims to have been so disgusted she defected to Labour and when the future of cancer services in Greater Manchester was unveiled, Christie’s role was actually expanded.
But far from being repentant, Liberal Democrats continue to claim that: ‘In 2005 there was grave concern for the future of the services at Christie Hospital. 60 doctors publicly warned that the Christie was under threat from the review of North West cancer services.’
Labour has always been angered by this claim and remains incensed. In a move that has certainly excited the South Manchester Reporter, local candidate Lucy Powell referred to the incident in a conference speech as an example of how low Lib Dem campaigners are prepared to sink.
At the heart of John Leech’s claim that Christie’s was under threat were concerns raised by the hospital’s medical staff committee that a break up was on the cards. By email John has complained to me that the chief executive refused to rule out this option
This local spat illustrates a wider hysteria that tends to accompany reviews of NHS services. It can only be right that the way the NHS works is constantly reviewed and updated, or the country would still be dotted with TB hospitals. Occasionally services will become redundant along with the jobs that deliver them, but concurrent to that new jobs and services will need to be delivered.
It’s also right that any review should contain a wide range of options and almost inevitable that most will be unpalatable to at least one interested party (while divvying out Christies services to others, would almost certainly have benefited someone). Those in positions of influence, like hospital chief executives, should refuse to rule anything out as to do so would be to prejudge the review’s outcome and make a mockery of the whole process.
Unfortunately, the Lib Dems secured John Leech’s election by reporting the process in the style of a Daily Mail leader writer. The apparent threat to the hospital was grossly exaggerated. Reasoned debate on the future of an essential component of NHS care was made impossible. But on the other hand, Lib Dems may reason, without the scare tactic Labour would still hold the seat.