From GP to politician
Campaigning to protect the NHS from political meddling
Helen Salisbury is a general practitioner running for the National Health Action party in the constituency of Oxford West and Abingdon. Salisbury read physiology, philosophy, and psychology at St Anne’s College, Oxford, before studying medicine at the London Hospital, Whitechapel. She held junior posts in London and Oxford and trained in neurology, before settling on a career in general practice. Salisbury began teaching clinical communication to medical students at Oxford in 1997 and has been running the course since 2005. She is also clinical director of the Health Experience Research Group of the Department of Primary Health Care Sciences, University of Oxford.
What compelled you to run as an election candidate for the National Health Action (NHA) party?
I first learnt about the party in September 2014 from an activist (who is married to an Oxford cardiologist) and immediately asked what I could do to help. A few months later, an email landed in my inbox asking me to consider standing as an electoral candidate for the party, and I could think of no good enough reason not to. There is a dearth of doctors in parliament. Sarah Wollaston, who is the Conservative MP for Totnes and chair of the Health Select Committee, worked as a general practitioner (GP) before joining parliament, but there are very few MPs who truly know about the realities of how the healthcare sector works.
I believe that the NHS is in serious danger from political meddling by governments of all colours. Across the country, profit making corporations are running services ranging from GP surgeries to mental health services and are now bidding for cancer care, while repeated failures of private companies continue to be well publicised. At the same time, swingeing cuts to social care budgets have left patients stuck in hospital and services stretched to breaking point. Parliament urgently needs better informed members to enable it to make decisions and plans for the NHS. As a GP, I know about the NHS and how it works, as well as knowing a great deal about my constituents and issues that impact on their daily lives.
Who else is involved with the party?
The NHA party was founded by Richard Taylor, famously involved in the Save Kidderminster Hospital Campaign as an independent MP, and Clive Peedell, a clinical oncologist, in 2012. Since then, support for the party has been received from a wide audience—including author Mark Haddon and comedian Rufus Hound, who stood as an NHA party candidate in the London constituency in the 2014 European elections.
Do you have any previous experience in politics?
No. I had no previous political experience before joining the NHA party. It is a steep learning curve for me and I find the necessary self promotion quite hard. However, I think the electorate is fed up with shiny career politicians with a handy soundbite but no experience of the real world and is ready someone different.
How have your patients and the general public responded to your announcement as an election candidate?
People have been very enthusiastic—the main issue as a small party is getting the word out. The basic concept that the NHS needs to abandon marketisation and privatisation agendas is shared by a lot of people and has united supporters of the NHA party. Of course, agreeing with the party’s views and agreeing with my decision to run as an electoral candidate are two different things, but the patients who have raised the topic in conversation with me have been very supportive. Although, one or two say they will campaign against me so they won’t lose me as their GP.
Do your colleagues support your involvement with the NHA party?
The other partners at my practice have been supportive of my decision to run as a candidate for the NHA party, even though one is an active supporter of the Green party. We have all witnessed the changes to the NHS caused by serial, ill thought-out reorganisations and believe that we need an alternative.
How are you balancing your roles as a GP and a medical school tutor alongside political campaigning?
I have always been primarily a doctor, secondarily a teacher, and now find myself an accidental politician. I’ve not been sleeping much, but have had to take a step back from my academic roles. I continue my clinical work, but will be taking time off from all commitments in the closer run up to the election. Being an MP is a full time job, but, were I to be elected, I’d still like to work a session a week as a GP, if feasible.
What do you hope that the NHA party can achieve at the forthcoming election, and beyond?
Our realistic hope is to have two or three party members elected into parliament. One of our co-founders, Richard Taylor, has previous experience as an independent MP, so we hope to use this and our unique standpoint on the NHS to successfully navigate our campaign. In the long term, the aim of the NHA party is to keep the issue of the running of the NHS on the political agenda.
The NHA party has 13 candidates running at the forthcoming general election—most of whom are healthcare professionals. Seats being contested include Witney—currently held by David Cameron—and south west Surrey—currently held by health secretary Jeremy Hunt.
We believe that, even with a small number of MPs, we can have an impact within government. The probable formation of a coalition will give greater opportunity for the voices of smaller parties to be heard. I think that enough people disagree with the direction that the NHS is heading in for the NHA party to be considered a legitimate option. Smaller parties are capable of formulating good ideas that other, more influential parties go on to use—for example, the Green party exerts substantial influence in parliament, despite having just one MP. Perhaps the biggest compliment of our work so far has been Andy Burnham’s (uncredited) adoption of our slogan: patients not profits.Lauren Passby, fourth year medical student
1University of Oxford, UK
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2015;23:h1257