I attended an important meeting yesterday. This was a meeting of Unite Health reps across London, intended to begin planning our strategy for resisting the multitude of attacks we face.
The meeting arose from a London Region Health Sector Committee a few weeks ago. Every single elected delegate at this had described the crisis they faced in their own Trust or organisation – and every single one of us felt we were being left to fight alone, without the backup from our Union that we needed. We agreed at the committee meeting that it was time to create a sharper, harder and more united approach to the cuts, redundancies and privatisation that plague the NHS.
Yesterday’s larger reps meeting was fascinating. We had reps there from primary care, hospitals, mental health, and the National Blood Service. The reports from every area were so similar it was shocking. Rep after rep described the pressures and insecurity caused by constant reorganisation. Job loss is a real fear for many of us (and an immediate threat for a few). Privatisation is now on the agenda for our core groups of members, with pathology services going out to tender, and primary care services in a number of Trusts farmed out to ‘Autonomous Provider Organisations’ as a major step towards outright privatisation.
Many reps raised professional issues. The loss of training, the loss of professional management, and the crude use of skill mix, come together to drive down the standard of clinical care in many services. Health visiting in particular is absolute crisis, with the steady erosion of universal services. This, in turn, impacts on other services – with paediatricians, speech and language therapists, clinical psychologists and so on picking up referrals later because children with complex health needs are not picked up through routine health visitor screening.
We also talked about politics. We discussed the conflict of interests in a union that simultaneously decides on ‘two years peace for Gordon Brown’ and that makes defence of the NHS a top campaign priority. Reps said that the attacks on the NHS weren’t coming from individual ‘bad managers’ in Trusts – they were driven by a Labour Government. Reps were very uneasy about the Union’s support for Labour. A Full Time Officer said that people just had to become Labour party members and Constituency Labour Party delegates, join the political structures of the Union, and influence things that way. He complained that people sounded like a ‘party political broadcast for the Conservative Party’. Reps were furious. One said she felt insulted. Another said that Labour Party membership wasn’t a condition of Union membership. The major topic of conversation over lunch was, ‘How dare he?’. Activists in our Union are very clear that we can’t defend Health without criticising the Government that is smashing our services.
The key thing, of course, is what we need to do about all this. We were talking about basics yesterday – the first step in putting together a plan for resistance. We were very clear that leaving reps to fight at local level – without information or support – is a recipe for disaster. We talked about the need to recruit and organise. We thought of ideas like a national enquiry into the state of the NHS, sponsored by Unite. We discussed the need for trade unions to work with and support community campaigns. We discussed the need to share information, ideas, accounts of the campaigns that have won and lost – and why. If Chief Executives can get together to attack our NHS, why on earth can’t we work together to defend it? And we also talked about the need for resources. If Unite values its members in Health, and especially if it values its reps and activists – it must put in the money for campaign material, and the Officer and Organiser support we need.
Yesterday was the first step, but a significant one. We’re meeting again in a month to look at what we’ve been able to deliver. The outcome matters. The NHS is melting away – trade union activists are a vital link in defending it.