Rage against the Tories’ assault on the health service filled the streets of London last Saturday.
Organisers said more than 200,000 people joined a national demonstration in defence of the NHS, called by Health Campaigns Together and the People’s Assembly.
Mark, a Unite union member from Essex, summed up the mood of defiance.
“The government is hell-bent on destroying the NHS,” he told Socialist Worker. “We were all born in it, we all use it—we’ve got to fight for it.”
The backbone of the protest was the local health campaigns—over 40 banners represented groups from across England and Wales. The demonstration united these disparate fights—and will boost local group’s resolve to take the fight back to their areas.
Mac Andrassy was part of a 150-strong delegation from the Hands Off HRI campaign in Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. “We have been fighting to save our accident and emergency department for over a year, but the march has reinvigorated our group,” he told Socialist Worker.
“When we come together with other campaigners and health workers we are an unstoppable force,” he added.
Years of budget cuts, privatisation and the decimation of local authorities’ social care services have plunged the NHS into crisis. For Bex, an admin worker from Manchester, this situation is “frightening”.
“My friend’s dad spent 14 hours on a trolley having seizures because they had no beds,” she told Socialist Worker.
“Then they sent him home because the queue for the MRI scan was too long and gave him the wrong medicine because they were so overstretched.”
Nurses Anne and Claire from Rugby in Warwickshire experience these pressures every day. “People are exhausted, they are going off sick or leaving because of stress, anxiety and depression,” Anne told Socialist Worker.
Claire added, “The government has got no clue what’s going on and we have managers with no medical background whatsoever.”
This crisis will only intensify if the Tories’ push through their Sustainability and Transformation Plans that will decimate health services across England. In an attempt to shift the blame, Theresa May and the Tories are scapegoating migrants as “health tourists”.
Sam, a student from Wolverhampton, was part of a lively Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) bloc. “The Tories are trying to divide us,” he told Socialist Worker. “Without migrants there wouldn’t be an NHS.”
At the rally Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn slammed the Tories’ attempts to scapegoat migrants. “All those European nationals working in this country have every right to remain here,” he said. “We will stand up for their right.”
There was a large turnout from Labour Party members, more than 50 local party banners showed the membership can be mobilised.
PCS union general secretary Mark Serwotka called on people to join the SUTR demonstrations on 18 March.
The demonstration showed the mood to defend the NHS. We have to use that to build a mass movement—including strikes—to beat back the Tories’ assault.
STPs are a recipe for selloffs
Carving up England into 44 “footprints”, the Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs) aim to slash £22 billion by 2020 under the guise of improving patient safety. These would axe hundreds of hospital departments and services.
The Tories claim that “concentrating” and “consolidating” services is necessary in order to improve patient care.
But the Tories’ plans are for wholesale cuts.
This will put patients’ lives at risk.
A large part of STPs is based on shifting the burden onto “primary care” provided in the community. But local authority-provided social care has already been hacked to the bone, which already is piling pressure onto hospitals.
Pressure councils to stop the STPs
The STPs include “integration” of health and social care.
Some 94 London boroughs, county councils and metropolitan districts have to sign up for the STPs to come into effect. If they refuse to sign it’s a major roadblock.
The first councils to refuse were Labour-run Hammersmith and Fulham council and Ealing council in west London last June. This was because there is a strong local campaign which has both worked alongside and pressured the Labour Party.
Since then 24 local authorities, including Camden in north London and Kirklees in West Yorkshire, have followed suit.
Tory-run North Devon was also forced into not signing by a powerful local campaign that’s mobilised thousands onto the streets.
While other councils have come out against the STPs, they have not said they will refuse to sign.
Labour-run Sheffield City Council passed a motion to “resist further cuts to the NHS and social care on the back of STPs”. But an amendment calling for public consultation was turned down.
Similarly Labour councillor Jonathan McShane in Hackney, east London, is not “going to sign until certain key tests are met”.
Health campaigners should push for their local authorities to oppose the STPs outright.
Protest showed depth of anger—now call strikes
All the major trade unions, including Unison, Unite and the GMB backed the demonstration last Saturday.
Despite this welcome support, they have failed so far to lead a serious fight.
The junior doctors’ strikes became a focal point for people’s anger last year and gave a glimpse of the potential for a fight, but the union leaders threw away the opportunity to launch a wider battle.
Most health workers’ pay is worth 14 percent less than in 2010. This should be a spur to organise strikes.
As Jacqui Berry from Unison told the rally, “We find out soon what pay offer we’ll be given. If it’s more of the same, then it’s up to our unions and union leaders to ballot us and deliver coordinated industrial action.”
The Unison leaders see national action as unrealistic, so are pushing for rebanding within the Agenda for Change pay framework.
The union would “actively support at least one high profile rebanding test site” in each of its 12 regions. That could include “building towards local industrial action where success is not achieved through negotiation”.
This can be used to push for local victories, but it cannot be a substitute for a national fight.