Today I took off my rosette and went and visited Southampton General Hospital which serves Eastleigh. It’s way outside the constituency, so I wasn’t there asking anyone for votes. But the invitation was there, a Labour big wig was going so I said sure, I’d like to see it too.
The doctors were keen for us to help counter the ignorance about rheumatoid arthritis in children. As it happens I knew a little bit about this because decades ago, my mum worked at a centre specialising in this field at the Canadian Memorial Red Cross Hospital at Cliveden. Sometimes, children with rheumatoid arthritis came for treatment from abroad and my mum would put the families up at our house. I remember the shock I felt when a boy from India I had got to know died a year or so later.
But survival rates have improved vastly since the 1970s, and much of the leading research has been done in the UK. Today there was an air of optimism in the wards, the facilities were world class and the health service has got much better at identifying the symptoms early on.
I was introduced to parents who had been sitting beside their children’s beds for weeks on end, who were so positive about the treatment their children were getting. Grandmothers were taking turns with their daughters, some children had both parents with them the whole time. Nothing makes me as emotionally wobbly as kids laughing and chatting even though they have been on drips and harnesses for weeks on end. (I should emphasise, we didn’t just march up to people; the hospital had checked which families would like to talk to us about their experiences).
But the whole couple of hours confirmed my absolute belief in the necessity of politics. And as you would expect me to say, for the side I support. Of course I didn’t say it to anyone present, but I thought that this facility has come about, and been built, staffed and funded because of politics. Because people campaigned for better health care, and elected the politicians who wanted to make it free and available to everyone at the point of delivery.
Some people change the world by becoming doctors and nurses, and do wonderful things every day. And others are in the business of trying to make sure these people are properly funded and supported along with all the other things that a civilised society requires; decent housing, schools and maybe the survival of a threatened local library.
In the United States, there are families like the ones I met today, who pray to their God that no further tests are needed, that no blood transfusions will be required, that the patient will not be instructed to stay overnight – because each of these things would be itemised on a bill at the end of the course of treatment. I think having a child with rheumatoid arthritis would probably be worrying enough, without the prospect of losing your family home to pay for your son or daughter’s treatment.
Yet there are people in this country who think that the American model is the direction we should pursue with our own health service. I am fully aware of mistakes that were made by Labour during its years in government. But the funding pumped into the Health Service was massive, local health centres were transformed and there was a party in power whose philosophy ensured a cast iron certainty that the health service free at the point of delivery.
All the maddening leaflets through the doors back here in Eastleigh are actually all about this. All the attempts to get the right sound-bite on the news, to avoid a gaffe or look well-informed at a local hustings; that, I’m afraid is the circus in which the winners gets to decide the fate of the families in the ward I visited today. I’m sorry it appears so cynical, so corrupt and self-serving. But that is the rules that have been presented, and to some degree created by us. I’d love it if we could all be completely honest, fallible, un-sure about some of the right answers, but we would be destroyed by the electoral news cycle, and the other lot would win.
I have failed to persuade some voters here that politics isn’t just that stuff on the news and the leaflets through your door. It’s your kids’ school, it’s the lighting in your street, it’s the pot holes in the pavement, the aircraft carrier that does or doesn’t have aircraft and the local hospital that is opened or closed.
All this stuff has to be decided by somebody, and I think it’s worth making sure those people have the right values and priorities. Now I’m going out to deliver more last minute leaflets and tomorrow I’ll be knocking on as many doors as possible. There are doorbells telling us to ‘Fuck Off’. But you just keep going because you think it’s important.