Has the Labour front bench ‘taken almost £650,000 from private health companies’?

Back in the day I used to spend quite a lot of time (probably more than was strictly necessary) debunking fake news from the Skwawkbox site. A one-person operation run by a leftwinger from Liverpool named Steve Walker, Skwawkbox nevertheless exercised considerable influence during the high tide of Corbynism, with its stories reportedly attracting hundreds of thousands of readers. Presumably traffic has declined since then, but the unreliability of Skwawkbox’s reporting has remained a constant over the years.

A case in point is a recent article headlined “Labour front bench takes £650k from health privateers — more than Tories”, which has been widely shared on social media. Skwawkbox claims that during 2020–23 “Keir Starmer and his front bench MPs have taken almost £650,000 from private health companies, according to a compilation of their declarations of MPs’ interests”. Here is a breakdown of the figures as provided by Skwawkbox:

Keir Starmer £157,500
Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting £193,225
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper £231,817
Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves £14,840
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner £50,000
Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy £1,640
Total £649,022

For anyone capable of critical thought, the immediate reaction to this is that it’s scarcely credible that private health companies could have donated such a huge sum of money to prominent Labour MPs without it previously attracting media attention. Where do these figures come from? Skwawkbox credits the Twitter/X account of one David Powell, who uses the handle @EuropeanPowell. Specifically, Skwawkbox was relying on this tweet from Powell.

Is Powell a reliable source? Hardly. Here he is attacking shadow health secretary Wes Streeting, who had responded to a critical i newspaper report on Labour’s plans for the NHS by stating “I want the NHS to accelerate groundbreaking science and harness it for patients”. Powell interpreted this as follows: “When Streeting says ‘accelerate’ he is referring to accelerationism theory where the left and right conflate their ideologies to drastically intensify capitalism and sabotage infrastructure for radical corporate reforms that betray socialism and democracy.”

So, based on Streeting’s use of the word “accelerate” and without presenting any supporting evidence, Powell paints him as an adherent of a fringe philosophy for which Streeting has never expressed any sympathy at all, so far as I’m aware. There are certainly grounds for criticising Streeting’s proposals for increased private sector involvement in the NHS, but this sort of nonsense doesn’t help at all.

The source Powell himself cites for his figures on donations from healthcare companies is EveryDoctor, an admirable site whose aims include opposing NHS privatisation. The figures compiled by EveryDoctor concern the financial records of MPs “who have interests in, or have been supported by, private healthcare organisations or by individuals with interests in such organisations”. In fact the details provided by EveryDoctor show that the donors to Labour’s front bench it has listed are mostly “individuals with interests in” private health companies, not the companies themselves. Powell’s claim that their contributions amount to “donations from private healthcare companies” is such an obvious distortion of the EveryDoctor findings that you can only conclude it’s intentional.

For example, according to EveryDoctor the donations to Wes Streeting include two totalling £15,000 from multimillionaire Trevor Chinn, who has a long history of financial support for the Labour right. The reason Chinn appears on EveryDoctor’s list is that he holds the position of senior adviser to CVC Capital Partners, whose extensive portfolio of investments across the world does include healthcare companies in France, Greece, India and elsewhere. So it is true to say that Chinn has an interest in private healthcare, and EveryDoctor is justified in drawing attention to this, even if it’s only a minor part of Chinn’s overall financial interests. What is misleading, though, is to categorise Chinn’s personal contributions among donations from private health companies, as Powell and Skwawkbox do.

According to EveryDoctor’s figures, Streeting received another two contributions of £15,000 each from hedge fund manager and former Tory donor John Armitage. In 2017 Armitage forked out half a million quid to help bankroll the Tories’ general election campaign, but broke with them in 2022 and began financially supporting Labour instead. Armitage is co-founder and chief investment officer of Egerton Capital, which states that it currently has $14 billion in assets under management. EveryDoctor includes Armitage on the list because it says Egerton Capital has $0.56 billion of this invested in the US-based private healthcare provider UnitedHealth, which already has a significant involvement in the NHS.

So, again, it’s a question here of an individual with a wide range of financial interests, of which private healthcare is just one part — on those figures, Egerton Capital’s stake in UnitedHealth constitutes 4% of total assets. It is clearly cause for concern that someone with Armitage’s background is contributing so generously to the funds of the Labour shadow health secretary. (In November-December there was a sudden surge in further donations to Streeting from this source totalling £65,000.) No doubt Armitage expects some political return on his investment. However it is possible to make this point without misrepresenting financial support from a hedge fund manager as a donation from a private health company.

A third and even more generous contributor to Wes’s coffers is Peter Hearn, who like Chinn is a longtime backer of the Labour right. According to EveryDoctor, Hearn donated a total of £148,725 to Streeting in 2020–23, comprising £22,500 in his own name and £126,225 through MPM Connect Ltd, a company of which Hearn is co-director. An investigation by Sky News last year alleged that MPM Connect engages in no identifiable activity other than funnelling donations to rightwing Labour MPs, leading to charges of “dark money”. A more thorough analysis by Solomon Hughes in the Morning Star showed that MPM Connect in fact serves as “Hearn’s vehicle for holding shares in recruitment companies”.

Those recruitment companies are Odgers Berndtson and its subsidiary Berwick Partners. It is his involvement in the latter that led to Hearn’s inclusion on the EveryDoctor list. They point out that Berwick Partners “helps with senior NHS executive recruitment AND helps private healthcare providers recruit healthcare professionals”. This is true enough, although a glance at the Our Sectors & Functions section of the company’s website reveals that its executive search service also covers central and local government, manufacturing & engineering, finance, IT & digital, charities, education and various other areas.

Solomon Hughes outlines the negative impact that Hearn’s bolstering of the Labour right has on the party’s policies: “He has a lot of wealth — like the £11m of assets he owns through MPM Connect. So it seems very likely he doesn’t like the idea of ‘wealth taxes’ or other tax increases on the rich and their firms. The Labour right will stop the Labour left from doing any of that. He likes outsourcing because his firm relies on government outsourcing — and the Labour right will not limit outsourcing.” But nothing here justifies the claim that Hearn’s donations qualify as support from a private health company, as Skwawkbox would have us believe.

I’m not going to bore everyone by going into the donations to Keir Starmer and all the other Labour politicians on Skwawkbox’s list, except to say that I haven’t been able to identify a single donation that comes directly from a private health company. The reason I’ve concentrated on Wes Streeting is that Skwawkbox’s misleading story about Labour MPs receiving funding from such companies obviously has particular relevance in the case of the shadow health secretary.

A further consideration is that a British-Palestinian activist named Leanne Mohamad has been selected to challenge Streeting in his constituency of Ilford North at the next general election. I’m still a member of the Labour Party myself (although under suspension for nearly two years now) so I’m not going to advocate a vote for any candidate standing against Labour. However, while Leanne has no chance of getting elected, or even preventing Streeting’s own re-election for that matter, her candidacy could at least serve to expose and publicise his appalling rightwing politics, including his plans for NHS “reform”. If her campaign is going to do that effectively, though, it needs to avoid repeating misinformation originating with the likes of EuropeanPowell and Skwawkbox.

Julia Patterson of EveryDoctor shows how to criticise Streeting accurately

First published on Medium in January 2024