On Saturday 3 March thousands of people will protest against the health cuts that are causing increasingly bitter demonstrations against government policy.
It will not be the single national demonstration that most activists were rightly calling for, but it will be an important focus, coming just seven days after a major anti-war march.
It will be a chance to have a week in which the issues pulling down the Labour government will lead to major mobilisations on the streets.
In particular, a London march could be a huge event, an early focus for what will be a make or break year for the NHS.
The NHS Together unions’ coalition decided just before Christmas that there will be regional events, not a national protest, on 3 March. The exact format is unclear and will be decided by NHS Together unions and TUC regional secretaries in the near future.
The government is on the ropes over the NHS and a coordinated fightback would be hugely effective.
The jitteriness – and rank hypocrisy – in the Labour cabinet was underlined over Christmas. Cabinet minister Hazel Blears, having voted for all the government’s cuts policies, joined protesters fighting the closure of the maternity unit at Hope Hospital in her Salford constituency.
Her stand follows similar hypocrisy by chief whip Jacqui Smith, home secretary John Reid and health minister Ivan Lewis, who have all said they are against health cuts in their own constituencies.
Geoff Martin, Health Emergency head of campaigns, said, “Here we have cabinet ministers, totally bound up in the government’s hospital cuts and closure programme, riding on the backs of anti-cuts campaigns in their own constituencies in a bid to save their own political skins. Frankly, it stinks.
“There are 29 hospitals up and down the country facing the immediate threat of cuts and closure to key services in 2007. Will Hazel Blears be joining demonstrators on the streets in each of those areas or is this just a classic case of ‘not in my back yard’?
“If the closure of maternity services is wrong in Salford, it is wrong in all those other parts of the country as well and Blears should be piling on pressure to ditch the cuts policy or she should resign.”
And if there were not already enough reasons to protest, the scale of the assault on the health service was underlined just before Christmas. At a time when media attention was low, the government announced that for the first time an entire NHS hospital was to be taken over and run by the private sector.
Partnership Health Group (PHG) has been named as the preferred bidder to take over the new £36 million Lymington Hospital in the New Forest.
Patients will be treated in a privately built, owned and run building, by a private provider using staff – including doctors and nurses – seconded from the NHS, as well as those PHG will employ directly.
Karen Jennings, Unison union head of health, said, “Handing over the running of the new hospital in Lymington represents a fundamental, seismic shift towards pushing entire communities out of the NHS into the private sector.
“We fear this is just the first wave and as Primary Care Trusts reorganise their local health services, it may be rolled out across other parts of the country.”
Meanwhile, Atos Origin, Mercury Health, and In-health Netcare have been awarded contracts to provide one million diagnostic procedures in London, the south west and north west of England and the Midlands.
There is a real battle on to save the NHS. We need campaigns in every locality to confront the cuts, and real resistance by the unions – including strikes where possible.
The potential to build such action is shown by the continuing battle in Manchester to defend services.
In a consultative ballot NHS community staff have overwhelmingly rejected cuts and agreed to be officially balloted for strikes.
On a 67 percent turnout 99 percent rejected the cuts proposals, 97 percent said they had no confidence in the management who made the proposals, and 94 percent said they were prepared to take strike action to stop the cuts.
Karen Reissmann, chair of Manchester community and mental health branch of Unison, told Socialist Worker, “Occupational therapists, activities staff, senior support workers, team secretaries, day care staff, technical instructors, therapists and nurses are united in opposing these cuts.
“They would mean getting rid of 33 nurses and 6.5 occupational therapist posts. Some teams will go from 16 nurses to four. At the same time, 24 extra management positions are being created.”
A rushed consultation
IT WAS wrong for the trade union leaders to call regional rather than national protests on 3 March.
The Unison union said only 6 percent of branches consulted “supported” a national demo. But they were not asked if they “supported” such a move.
They were consulted on how many people would come—and the consultation was a hasty and rushed exercise just before Christmas.
As with all such consultations, it was inevitable that few would reply.
The problem is that many areas have had local demos already. They need a higher level of protest. And in some areas there may not yet be immediate local cuts, so a national protest that challenges the entire direction of policy is necessary.
The union leaders and the TUC must not now make matters worse by downgrading the protests further.
Amicus national officer Kevin Coyne has told union members that 3 March “is a simultaneous national event which is only limited by our own imagination and I would urge your maximum participation.
“I would be grateful if you could advise your members promptly of this day of action and, of course, liaise with any community campaigns based at your trust in order to secure maximum turnout.”
Those words must be turned into action.
Keep Our NHS Public campaigners’ conference on Saturday 20 January in London. To register send delegates’ names to [email protected] or phone 01273 234822. £5 per person