How Labour Lost the Nurses

A recent poll shows Labour's support among nurses has plummeted by 50 points since 2019 – exposing the party's disastrous failure to commit to the pay increase that NHS staff and their unions have demanded.

The NHS workforce has a strong record of supporting Labour. In recent years this has been well-documented. In the lead up to elections, papers have repeatedly printed interviews with health workers voicing their support for Labour and sharing concerns over the impact of damaging Tory policy including budget cuts, privatisation, and understaffing.

In the 2015 and 2017 elections, Nursing Times polling showed around 50% of Nurses were planning to vote Labour compared to around 10% and 16% planning to vote Conservative. In 2019, after a decade of austerity and in the middle of an NHS winter crisis, Nursing Notes found a staggering 82% of health workers surveyed intended to vote Labour compared to only 6% who intended to vote Conservative. The vast majority (96%) of those supporting Labour identified the party’s pledges on pay, working conditions, safe staffing, and patient safety as their main reason for doing so.

In 2019, strong support for Labour in the polling booth was accompanied by groups of healthcare workers campaigning actively for a Corbyn government. Doctors and nurses came together with Keep Our NHS Public to debunk Johnson’s lies about the NHS. Healthcare workers travelled up and down the country to marginals to campaign for Labour under the banner of Nurses for Real Change. There was a palpable sense from these frontline workers that the Tories were pushing the NHS to crisis point and a belief that Labour’s 2019 manifesto would secure the future of our health service.

Fast forward 18 months and health workers’ support for Labour has plummeted. Last week, Nursing Notes found that only 32% of health workers surveyed said they intended to back Labour in the ‘Super Thursday’ elections. That was compared to 42% who said they intended to vote Tory. Many of the nurses who campaigned for Labour in 2019 have since left the party.

The rapid decline in support for Labour is particularly shocking because it comes in the wake of the Tories’ gross mishandling of the pandemic. How can the workforce who have been at the receiving end of the government’s most catastrophic errors be turning out in support of them?

The truth is that Labour have offered health workers very little during the pandemic. Keir Starmer could have positioned himself as a genuine defender of the NHS and consolidated Labour’s primacy in matters of health and care. When health workers faced PPE shortages, Labour could have been vocal in speaking out against the mismanagement of government provision and helped ensure all healthcare workers were provided with the protection they urgently needed. When Boris Johnson was slow to enact lockdowns as we headed towards a second wave, Labour could have put pressure on the government to act decisively and avoid unnecessary deaths. Instead Starmer chose only to triangulate and equivocate.

Starmer could have set himself apart as a political leader whose support went far beyond empty rhetoric and performative clapping. He could have been one who listened closely to the problems facing NHS workers in the pandemic and used his substantial platform to amplify their concerns and hold the government accountable for its shortcomings.

Perhaps the most damning example of Starmer’s lack of support for health workers is his prolonged failure to stand with their mass campaign for a restorative pay rise. The #NHSPay15 campaign which erupted last July has groups in every corner of the UK and, following its rise, the RCN, Unite, and GMB have all adopted energetic campaigns for increases of 12.5% or more.

Starmer has barely acknowledged the movement. Instead he has piled on the rhetoric that NHS workers need a pay rise, while supporting an increase of just 2.1%. This figure is both significantly lower than workers are asking for and is also, shamefully, a figure the Tories are widely known to have already budgeted for.

All this presents Starmer as disingenuous: as a politician who will opportunistically clap for carers and invoke the NHS as a reason to vote Labour (despite recent local elections holding no influence over the health service) but who has little interest in addressing the issues facing health workers or, indeed, the NHS.

NHS workers are not fools. Nor are the general public. If Starmer wants Labour to maintain working-class support—from within the NHS and beyond—he must listen to workers and use his considerable platform in support of their demands. Labour must differentiate itself from the Tories by showing that it alone is the party that will use whatever power it has to further the interests of ordinary people. In the case of NHS workers, a failure to do so will mean the loss of one of Labour’s most valuable allies – and continued destruction for the NHS itself.