I went up to Liverpool yesterday for a march and rally to mark the NHS 60th birthday. It felt a lot more real than most of the banal claptrap we’ve seen on the TV and heard from politicians over the last few days. This wasn’t just a celebration – it was also a protest.
The latest lunatic proposal on Merseyside is for a nice new hospital – great, except it’s PFI, it will have 315 beds fewer than existing provision, and it locks the NHS into a 40 year contract that will inevitably strip money out of patient care. This is not in the interests of local people.
Yesterday’s protest was organised by Merseyside Keep Our NHS Public, with solid support from Merseyside TUC and the North West TUC. This is the kind of practical working unity that is crucial to defend the NHS. There’s no question that this is a model for how we should be building local campaigns. It was great to see so many trade unionists there, from the NHS and the wider movement. There was a respectable turnout overall, even in torrential rain. After much thought, I decided this was the wettest march I’ve been on since Heseltine tried to close down the remaining coal mines in 1992!
There was a good spread of speakers, including myself from Unite, John Lister from Keep Our NHS Public, Unison’s Roger Bannister, Jean Davis from the National Pensioners Convention, and Karen Reissman – a brilliant trade unionist and campaigner who isn’t going to let a minor thing like victimisation get in her way. It was particularly good to see Alan Manning, Regional Secretary of the North West TUC, speaking at the rally. The defence of the NHS needs to become a central issue for all our unions, whether they organise NHS workers or not.
We covered different things in the speeches, with John Lister probably getting the best line in. He said the Government had suddenly gone very quiet over polyclinics – maybe someone had gone to Gordon Brown and said, ‘You’re about as popular as a dose of herpes – do you really want to make it worse?. I talked about the way pay cuts and constant reforms are destroying the ability of health workers to do our jobs, and how we’ve got to turn the paper policies of our unions into a real fight back. Alan Manning asserted the core principles of the NHS, saying that all the evidence was that healthcare was best provided by a publicly owned and controlled NHS. Karen Reissman talked about how the creation of the NHS 60 years ago had transformed peoples’ lives, and ended an era of living in fear. We couldn’t afford to go back to that situation.
The theme of every single contribution, though, was overwhelming opposition to privatisation, and a recognition that privatisation is tearing the NHS apart. Labour backbenchers might want to stop and think about why people hate Labour so much. I can think of a good few reasons – but Labour’s dismantling of a public NHS is a very central one.