Liberal Democrats manifesto 2024: a ‘fair deal’ for health and care?

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Liberal Democrats manifesto 2024: a ‘fair deal’ for health and care?

The Liberal Democrats launched their manifesto today (Monday) with none of the trademark stunts that we’ve come to associate with Sir Ed Davey’s 2024 general election campaign (although a stunt is never too far away in this campaign as the subsequent trip to Thorpe Park showed).


With only a dinosaur-print tie to nod to the playful nature of his campaign to date, the party leader presented himself as the sensitive, empathetic candidate; with a heart-felt description of how his life experiences have shaped his party’s manifesto For a Fair Deal.


Looking to appeal to those feeling ‘hard done by’ under the last Government, the Lib Dems have promised to deliver a ‘fair deal’ on the economy, public services (especially health), the environment, international affairs and democratic processes.


A manifesto to ’save the NHS’


What the Lib Dems want you to remember about this manifesto, is that they are the party to “fix the broken NHS” – an area they haven’t previously focussed on, but have likely steered towards to 1) respond to polls that put the NHS at the top of nation’s priority list and 2) utilise their leader’s personal connection to their policies to help them cut through to voters.


Their policies – tackling both the front (primary care) and back door (social care) to free up capacity and reduce waiting lists –  are a mix of practical and ambitious, weighted towards the former.


On primary care, the party pledges to guarantee GP appointments within seven days through increasing the number of full time equivalent GPs by 8,000 – though with little detail on their strategy to recruit and retain staff on this scale. Other, arguably more achievable, pledges include ensuring everyone has access to an NHS dentist via much-needed reforms to the NHS dental contract, and sustainable long-term funding for pharmacies to deliver routine services and ease the pressure on GPs.


Mental health has for many years been a focus for the Lib Dems, with 60 mentions in the 2019 manifesto. This time around, there are 16 mental health pledges to improve early access to mental health services, including new policies focussed on the young, such as community walk-in hubs and a dedicated mental health professional in every school to tackle the mental health crisis in children.


Sir Ed’s commitment to improving cancer outcomes was conveyed through his personal experience nursing his mother through her terminal diagnosis. His party will look to introduce a guarantee that 100% of patients will be able to start treatment within 62 days from urgent referral. Given the current target of 85% of patients being treated with that time period hasn’t been met since 2015, this ambition is going to be near-impossible to meet. Their additional polices – including increasing the number of cancer nurse specialists, investing in radiotherapy and halving the time to approve new medicines – although welcome, don’t go nearly far enough to meet the ambition.


Perhaps the most successful theme from the manifesto launch – receiving attention across traditional and social media – is the ‘fair deal on social care’, drawing again on the party leader’s personal experience to propose a solution to an issue that governments have consistently neglected. They plan to create a social care workforce plan, establish a Royal College of Care Workers and introduce a higher Carer’s Minimum Wage to improve recruitment, progression and retention, and will introduce support for unpaid carers and free personal care for those who can’t afford to pay.


A fair deal for the tax-payer?


If you are thinking, “this all sounds expensive”, you’d be right. The party estimate they’d need £8.35bn up to 2028/29 to fund their plans for health and care, with an additional £1.1 billion required for capital investment.


The raft of funding commitments contrasts with Labour’s rhetoric on reform and service transformation – notably, there is limited focus on the role of new technology, such as AI, to deliver efficiencies.


However, the party does seem to agree with Labour and the Conservatives on who should be footing the bill – it proposes to fund its health and care plans through reforming capital gains tax and halting year-on-year banking industry tax cuts.


A fair deal for all?


While it could be argued that investment in public services was not well directed over the past decade – for a variety of geopolitical reasons, Government choices and the COVID-19 pandemic – one might question whether their Labour-coded ‘big state’ approach to achieving a fair deal for health and care will resonate with the centre-right leaning, blue wall voters the Lib Dems are carefully targeting in their campaign, as well as the party at large. 


More liberal arguments set out in the manifesto – such as that good health gives people the freedom to live their lives as they choose, and a thriving economy needs a healthy population – have not cut through in the media coverage.


Encouraged by the success of Sir Ed’s stunt of the day at gaining them traditional and social media attention, the party may well be banking on the belief that most people have switched off from politics and policies, and only personal stories (and gimmicks) cut through. The Lib Dem leader’s moving accounts of his lived experience certainly brings an authenticity to the party’s policy-making on health and care.


With the first YouGov MRP looking positive for the Lib Dems – predicting wins in 48 seats – the party and its passionate leader will certainly hope their strategy to appeal to hearts of perhaps the wider public, versus the minds of the residents of their blue wall target seats, will deliver them their 50 seat target.

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