By Mike Fenwick, Leeds Unison health
Saturday March 3rd sees the first nationally coordinated day of trade union action in defense of the NHS. Events ranging from lobbies of MPs to rallies and marches and, for the more adventurous, an ascent of Skiddaw in the Lake District aim to highlight the crisis in the health service.
The day has been co-ordinated by “NHS Together”, the coalition of trade unions and professional bodies brought together by the TUC. With such heavyweights behind it the day ought to be a success. Unfortunately the initial promise of strong support may not be delivered upon - for instance in Leeds there is unlikely to be any publicity material available until a week before the event. In other regions the original idea of having one central focus for activity has broken down into many small events. There will however be a major demonstration in Birmingham supported by both East and West Midlands TUC.
The serious involvement of the unions in the NHS campaign is long overdue. And 3 March marks the start of some coordination at a national level of the fight to save the NHS. That national co-ordination is essential.
Many local community groups, some already campaigning for years, have concluded that the attacks they have been fighting will only end by a reversal of the national policies that feed them. Both the conferences of PUSH (People United Saving Hospitals) and KONHSP (Keep Our NHS Public) saw calls for organising on a regional and national level including a national demonstration. However NHS Together responded with a programme of regional activity. To many of us that seemed to be a step down from what was possible.
The unions argued that there was not yet a big enough mood of opposition to go ahead with a national demo. That despite seeing hundreds of thousands of people out on marches and other actions in the last six months. But national action to stop the privatisation of NHS Logistics, local strikes against cuts in services as in Manchester and the threat of industrial action in the Blood Service mean that local union organisation are stirring into action. These are the sparks that might light the flames of a full blown industrial response to the cuts in jobs and services. It hasn’t happened yet. Why not? There are two theories about this: the conspiracy theory and the cock up theory.
Many community campaigners and some on the left say the lack of action is due to union’s ties to Blair and the Labour Party (the conspiracy theory). Scared of risking Labour votes in the May elections, the unions have avoided a national demonstration that would embarrass Blair on a key “old Labour” issue. That of course does not explain the equally lethargic response of those unions and professional organisations not affiliated to the Labour Party.
Nonetheless some union leaders are deeply compromised by their relationship with New Labour, their commitment to “partnership working” and their continued handouts to a literally bankrupt party. When’s leadership is apparently prepared to back Alan Johnson for deputy leader because of the “successful” working through of pension reform. you are left to wondering whether they have any independent will left.
But the left’s call for “disaffiliation from Labour” and “for an electoral challenge to Labour on the single demand of Save the NHS” avoids some of the complexities of the problem.
The union leaderships are dominated by New Labour’s ideology and disaffiliation from New Labour won’t stop that. The union leaderships accept that the market, including the market in the NHS, is necessary. This political problem can only be resolved by taking a political struggle into the unions, by challenging the neo-liberal ideology.
Socialists need to see that the fight to save the NHS implies a fight to renew and rearm the labour movement with the politics of class struggle.
One major component of that campaign is coordinating support for John McDonnell in his bid to be a Labour leadership candidate.
We also need to fight to impose upon the leadership the understanding that their power lies with their members (not with deal with government) and the ability to act as a unified force. This truth gives us the basis for the cock-up theory.
The trade unions seem incapable of organising mass action and public campaigns. Don’t they remember how to do it? In both the anti-war and anti-poll tax campaigns the trade unions lent support to mass movements with their own momentum and leadership. Faced with the challenge of leading a struggle they seem scared to take the opportunity to do it. Even though it would restore some of the reputation and status of the trade union movement as a major, progressive force in society.
The NHS was created by the struggles of the British labour movement; its fate is now tied up with that of the trade unions and Labour Party.
The NHS has no place in a world ruled by profit. Yet it continues to exist. That is only because no government has dared to challenge its basic principle that profit and money should not decide who lives and who dies in a civilised society. In the fight to save the NHS the unions can rediscover their own founding principle of social solidarity - an injury to one is an injury to all.
If the labour movement fails to take the opportunity to organise a mass campaign the NHS will die. Bit by bit, privatisation by privatisation, by rationing, by introducing charges, by cutting and hiving off bits of the service.
If we fail yet more confidence and faith will go from trade unionism.
That does not need to happen.
The combined trade union movement is still potentially a huge force in society. Though it is taking a huge effort to force it to move we cannot avoid that effort.
We need to continue to build from the grassroots, strengthening the local community groups, pulling in the as yet unorganised service user and support groups, developing links with local union branches and looking outward to other campaigns in defense of the public sector. Build on 3 March. Build a national campaign of industrial action to save the NHS!