National demo – where now?

The national demonstration on the NHS took place yesterday. I was there, along with thousands of others.

A family member who couldn’t make it asked me how the demo had gone. My response was along the lines of, ‘Well, it was OK’.

The march certainly wasn’t a failure. The organisers claim a turnout of 7000 – probably quite accurate. There were sizable contingents from some parts of the country (a good showing of Unison members from Scotland, for example). This was a lively, vibrant march – most of us on the demo will have come away positive and buoyed up from having been there.

But there were weaknesses too, and we shouldn’t ignore them.

A total turnout of 7000 is not particularly impressive. Last summer, 27,000 people marched in Hayle, a small town in Cornwall, against health cuts. Last month, 14,000 marched in defence of the local A&E unit in Haywards Heath, with another 15,000 in Chichester two weeks later. Last week, 3000 turned out in defence of health services in Bridlington. Against that background, 7000 on a national demonstration starts to look a lot less impressive.

Of course, part of this is simply that it’s easier to mobilise people when there’s a local focus – but nevertheless, it’s clear that yesterday’s march barely scratched the surface of the anger that exists around NHS ‘reforms’. It’s worth looking at some of the reasons behind that.

One very conspicuous problem is that the national demo has been on and off so many times that activists have started to lose count. I went back and checked on the original plans. The ‘NHS Together’ coalition was launched in the summer of 2006. The plan then was for a series of activities building to a national demo in February 2007 – so we’re nine months behind schedule, with many of the stepping stones not having happened at all.

A central problem is that all our unions were transfixed by the prospect of Brown’s snap general election in November, and – at official level – all the plans for building the demo were put on hold. I’ve heard from activists who were trying to organise transport in late September and early October, but were being told by regional offices that the demo might not be taking place. Several weeks of official inaction, so close to a major demonstration, must have been astonishingly damaging.

The ambivalence of our union leaderships was obvious in other ways. Unison had (finally) sanctioned the demo going ahead, but declared it to be a celebration of the NHS. A major theme of the day was, ‘I love the NHS because…’ All of us know that we’re in a fight for the survival of the NHS – why not just come clean about that? My own union Unite (Amicus section) probably has a better record of support for a national demo and support for ‘Keep Our NHS Public’ – but neither Derek Simpson nor Tony Woodley attended yesterday’s demonstration or rally themselves.

This isn’t about saying that one union is better or worse than another – but looking at the challenges that health activists face. The General Secretaries of Unite and Unison have thrown their weight behind Gordon Brown. There is an obvious problem here, when Brown was the architect of PFI, and is now busily progressing Blair’s agenda of dismantling our NHS.

It was disappointing, too, that the march was almost exclusively health workers. Of course there was some presence from ‘Keep Our NHS Public’ groups, National Pensioners Convention activists, political activists and so on – but a very limited turnout from the wider union movement or from the general public. Unite is a general union with over two million members. We could have built for a massive turnout of our wider membership – but a decision was taken somewhere that we weren’t going to do this.

Health workers can’t win this fight on our own. The level of demoralisation is high in many workplaces. The capitulation over this year’s derisory pay award will have reinforced the view of many health workers that there’s nothing we can do in the face of Government attacks. It’s essential that there’s a wider movement in defence of the NHS.

So, where now? We go back to our branches and our workplaces, and report on a decent enough demo. In any decision making bodies we belong to, we ensure that yesterday’s march is not the end of the campaign to defend the NHS, but the start of a bigger and more militant fightback. In our own workplaces, we face the urgent task of recruiting, organising, developing new reps and so on. We have to be a part of ‘Keep Our NHS Public’ and other community campaigns, and encourage our unions to support these at official level.

Maybe the most important underlying issue, though, is the political one. Unison and Unite are the two biggest TUC-affiliated unions. Both donate substantial sums of money to the Labour Government. As health workers, we’re not just under attack – we’re effectively paying ‘our’ Government for the privilege! The questions of political funding and political representation are big ones, but it’s essential that we start raising them within our movement.


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