A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Day trip to Brighton

I've just got back from a day in Brighton.

Having attended 16 Labour Party Conferences but never been called to speak, I finally gave my maiden conference speech today. Shame it took a serious illness to achieve this - I was part of a panel recounting their experience of the NHS.

Here I am on stage - I'm the one in the wheelchair next to Andy Burnham (the pic is from John Gray's blog, Paul Richards has also reported my speech on LabourList):

A wildly irrelevant and lengthy point of order during the health debate by Tower Hamlets veteran leftie Belle Harris meant that just as us four patients walked or in my case were pushed up onto the stage we were told time constraints meant we had to cut the length of our contributions by half.
I thought what I said in the end was better for being briefer and off-the-cuff but here for the record is the full text I had prepared if Belle hadn't nicked part of my three minutes:
“I want to tell you what the NHS has done for me this year. In February, I was completely well. I was a 36 year old young dad, and I had only ever visited my GP a handful of times.

Then I got a sudden shooting pain in my calf. I thought it was cramp and would go away. It didn’t.

The pain spread to both legs. Then came pins and needles and the numbness in my hands and feet.

After a few weeks I was finding it so difficult to walk I started falling over in the street.

As you can imagine this was a terrifying experience.

In April I was admitted to hospital – and didn’t come out until September.
I think you’ll agree that five months sampling a wide range of NHS services day in day out is long enough to form a clear judgement about the state of our national health service.

It turned out I had a very rare and difficult to diagnose – but thankfully also very treatable – neurological illness called POEMS syndrome.

A bone marrow tumor was putting antibodies into my blood which were destroying my nervous system.

I’ve had radiotherapy. I may need chemo but hopefully not. At the moment I am slowly recovering.

At my weakest, I spent three months with my legs so frail they had to be lifted in and out of bed. My hands too weak to use a pen properly or even open a soft drink can.

It’s only when you are that helpless that you understand what “care” really means.

When you get to know that the kindness a nurse puts into how they look after you makes the difference between a bearable day or an absolutely terrible one.

And I have to say the wonderful, committed, compassionate people who cared for me kept me going through a very frightening experience.

They aren’t just doing a job. I know that every day they go the extra mile everyday to make life bearable for people who are seriously ill.

I want to thank my GP for spotting there was something seriously wrong. I want to thank all the staff at the Homerton Hospital and the National Hospital for Neurology who looked after me: doctors, nurses but also cleaners, porters and catering staff without whom no hospital can function.

I want to thank the haematology and radiotherapy teams at University College Hospital for treating me. And the physios and occupational therapists at the National and in the community team where I live who are helping me learn to walk again.

Believe me, this huge complex system that is the National Health Service delivers care and treatment in a way that is personalised to the patient, not bureaucratic or distant.

Hundreds of people helped care for me, but I always felt that all of them cared for me as a person.

And thank goodness that in our country if you need five months in hospital with incredibly expensive care and treatment, you are assessed on your need, not on your credit card. And you are treated by people who are motivated by public service.

My heart goes out to people who get an illness like mine in America, where there’s no NHS. How much more terrifying must it be not knowing if you can even afford to be ill, let alone afford diagnosis and treatment?

I can’t begin to tell you the boiling anger I felt when I lay in my hospital bed and read that Tory MEP Daniel Hannan was parading round the TV studios of America attacking our NHS and the people who work in it. I pity that man if he cannot see what a wonderful institution the NHS is. And I pity David Cameron if he allows those kind of repugnant views to be promoted by a leading member of his party.

Our NHS isn’t perfect. There are always ways in which the experience for patients could be improved. But fundamentally, the NHS saves lives. That’s why we have higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality than the USA.

As a patient I have experienced a system that we should all be very proud of.

A service created by Labour, opposed by the Tories, embodying Labour values of solidarity and community.

I know the NHS really is worth fighting for.

So thank you Labour for the NHS.

Thank you Gordon Brown for the massive NHS investment over the past 12 years which would only ever be possible with a Labour Government.

And thank you NHS for giving me my life back.”


Anonymous Red Rag said...

The problem for the NHS is that anything positive about it is never reported by the media. Some of it is the fact that good news doesn't sell, however most of it is due to the fact that most of the privately owned British media has an agenda so will only print negative things about the NHS.

There are millions of different stories like yours, however only through places like a conference will the story be heard.

10:44 pm, September 30, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't always agree with your views - I'm less tribal and less New Labour; though sometimes I do. However, credit where credit's due I felt your comments on the NHS were the sort that everyone who is a Labour member would agree with. Thank God we have not got a system like the USA where we have to worry about how we are going to pay for our healthcare at the point of need.

My wife was recently in intensive care for a week and it really brings home how important the NHS is. She is fairly unpolitical but on seeing your speech she said how she agreed with your comments.

So good speech comrade. Hope the recovery continues. Paul

10:45 pm, September 30, 2009

Blogger Silent Hunter said...


The NHS is indeed a wonderful institution and I know several people who work in it from hospital porters to consultant surgeons all of whom I hold in the deepest respect and awe.

My own daughter hopes to study medicine and join its ranks and I am proud of her for this.

As you know, I hate this Labour Government and we will never agree over this fact.
But I will forever be grateful to a previous Labour Government for giving us the NHS.
If the Tories ever tried to damage it - rest assured that the guy standing next to you at the barricade would be me.

I am sorry to see you that you are unwell and I wish you steady progress until you are completely well again.

Although we may lock horns over politics, I trust that we are both still human beings and that care for others is something close to both our hearts.

Wishing you a speedy recovery and best wishes from one of your adversaries, but only in a political sense. ;o)

11:10 pm, September 30, 2009

Blogger OscottLocal said...

Well said Luke and its good to have you back.

11:34 am, October 01, 2009

Anonymous Tony said...

Interesting that this is probably the most human and compassionate posting from you that we have ever seen. I am sorry that you have been so seriously ill, but hope it has made you a nicer, gentler, more caring person who is, perhaps, now more able to understand the problems and difficulties of others.

12:15 pm, October 01, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure why you were surprised by Belle Harris - has see ever made a poiht of order which was short and to the point? But we shouldn't undermine tradition at Conference - you'll be wanting to abolish the leader's speech next;)

1:09 pm, October 01, 2009

Anonymous Ted Harvey said...

Luke it's excellent that you relate your positive experience of the NHS. I know I have had variable experiences, but overall, on the crucial matters, the NHS has always delivered for me and my family when and how it mattered.

I make sure that in non-dogmatic and no-preaching ways, I counter with my broadly positive experience when I hear individuals knocking the NHS. Mostly, these knockers are spouting right wing populist press propaganda.

The perplexing and frustrating thing is that often these same individuals will then in turn reply with something like 'oh yes in my personal experience I found them OK' or 'Oh yes when my dad/mum/wife/friend/neighbour had a stroke the NHS was just brilliant'.

This demonstrates to me that the NHS does face an unrelenting decades long campaign of vilification from the overwhelmingly right wing media in the UK.

1:16 pm, October 01, 2009

Anonymous Spellarite said...

Following on from the comments about what is going on the media being so different from real life experience - John Spellar MP posted this on Facebook yesterday.

At conference this week I caught up with parliamentary colleagues from around the country and I took the opportunity to try and build up an impression of what is really going on out there on the doorstep. I asked my MP colleagues about what voters in their constituencies’ have been saying to them about the government during the summer and I was struck by the number who had a similar story.

Something I was told repeatedly was a variation on ‘I know my constituency is a bit unusual (for whatever reasons make it different from others) but my canvass returns are holding up, voters are telling me they will support Labour when the time comes and they don’t trust Cameron and Osborne to run the country’. These reports are supported by the results of recent local council by-elections where we are holding and winning seats with far greater success than our rating in the opinion polls would predict.

This dissonance between the actual experience of party workers on the ground and the accepted wisdom of media commentators based on their interpretation of national opinion polls reminds me of a paradox that used to come into play whenever voters were asked about the National Health Service. For years, voters would report that their own personal experience of the NHS was good but they believed that their own experience was a lucky fluke and the bigger picture was much more dire. It took a lot of time for the NHS as portrayed in the media and as held in the public imagination to catch up with those individual experiences and accurately reflect them.

So what is going on here? Clearly, we can’t disregard the opinion polls but I think we need to consider what it is they are telling us.

A common methodology employed by the pollsters is to weight the results in favour of those who are certain to vote. Could this explain the difference between their findings and those of our canvassers who on the whole talk to all eligible voters regardless of their likelihood to get themselves to the polling station unprompted. If this is the case, it means the General Election is winnable but there is a real danger of false assumptions lowering the morale of our MPs, candidates and activists with the result of winnable seats being given up on and thrown away to the opposition. It will be the fight of our lives but if we work hard, deploy all the resources we can muster and make sure that every voter is clear about the choice they have between Labour and the Conservatives, we can get out our vote and we can win.

If anyone has an alternative explanation I would be interested to hear it.

3:16 pm, October 02, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

And I'm a Tory and have only ever had positive experiences of the NHS too. It's wonderful that you had such good treatment. It wouldn't be any different if Lansley was Secretary of State.

I fear you are hinting at the same out and out lie that Brown sought to tell in his truly lamentable address to conference on Tuesday - that the NHS is threatened by the Tories. Already the NHS is under strict instructions from its CEO, David Nicholson, to find £15-20billion in 'effieciency savings' (cuts to the uninitiated) by 2014. That's if Labour win the election. I heard yesterday from a Permanent Secratery of the huge cuts Labour is already instructing departments to find.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of funding reductions in public services I for one am sick and tired of not being able to believe a word that comes out of the mouth of the current PM. For example, why announce free child care for 250,000 children (a good policy) but fail to mention the abolition of childcare vouchers (also a good policy) as a means to fund it?

We need a proper debate, not the creation of false dividing lines.

9:18 pm, October 02, 2009

Anonymous M said...

Having had this experience will end up being a blessing in disguise for you. There's nothing you can't do, Luke, wheelchair or no wheelchair. Congratulations on an excellent speech and wishing you a continued good recovery.

11:09 am, October 03, 2009


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