This Saturday another thousands strong demonstration is set to take place in Surrey to fight against local health cuts.
The protest at St Helier hospital follows a 5,000-strong protest in neighbouring Epsom in September. Dozens of similar campaigns are taking place across the country.
They are the most visible sign of the anger over closures and service cuts caused by the £1.2 billion deficit across the NHS.
Sometimes distasteful figures have attempted to take a lead – many of the meetings and protest marches have been addressed by local Tory MPs.
Such figures are opportunistically using the issue of health cuts to improve their chances at the next election. However, they are able to gain an audience because the issues they raise are issues that touch the lives of millions of working class people who depend on the NHS.
And the influence of such forces on the movement against health cuts reflects a problem. The unions’ relationship with New Labour has undermined attempts to organise determined and hard-hitting industrial action to defend the health service. So local meetings, mass petitions and street protests have mushroomed – but without the unions rising to the same level of fightback.
The left needs to be involved in these campaigns, pushing them in a radical direction that focuses on action by working class people – health workers and those in the communities affected by the cuts.
Tony Phillips, chair of Waltham Forest Keep Our NHS Public, has experience of having to operate in this kind of situation. An ongoing campaign to defend Whipps Cross hospital, north east London, was seized upon by Tory MPs in the area.
“There’s been a tug of war,” says Tony. “The Tories can weigh in with lots of resources and it’s tempting for people to just go with them.” But in Waltham Forest the campaign has avoided both this temptation, and the opposite one of abstaining from the campaign altogether.
The solution? “We have to make sure that we keep planning the next move – whether it’s organising stalls in the market, protests or whatever,” says Tony. “Our job is to ensure there is action and activity all the time.”
Another way that these protests can be steered in a radical direction is by maximising involvement from unions at every stage.
Tony is involved in the local trades council and, he says, “I’m always bringing up the question of union involvement.”
Where unions have come together with local protests, it has proved a popular combination. Geoff Martin is the head of campaigns at pressure group Health Emergency. He has helped organise a series of major demonstrations over health cuts.
The Epsom and St Helier campaign, he says, “is very much led by the trade union movement. There are other forces involved in the campaign, but the main driving force is the staff unions in the hospitals.
“In order to have a robust campaign, the people who are directly affected by cuts, who see the impact first hand, have to be at the centre.”
The campaigns taking place around the country are one way in which the politicisation in society can feed into the workplace. That can lay the basis for rebuilding union organisation among health workers, something that will be increasingly important if we want a serious fight to defend the NHS.
St Helier hospital protest, Saturday 25 November, assemble 10.30am, Sutton Junior Tennis Centre, Rose Hill, Sutton.
No sacrifice at the top
NHS managers are set to receive bonuses for sacking staff and cutting services.
The new pay structures for chief executives and senior managers – who are on £110,000 a year or more – mean pay and bonuses will be linked to hitting financial goals. This means driving through the attacks on the health service needed to claw back £1.2 billion in deficits.
The size of the bonuses for managers is expected to be at least £11,000 each.
Chancellor Gordon Brown is attempting to hold pay rises for ordinary NHS workers at 1.5 percent.