Lewisham: our plans to go on winning

Submitted by Matthew on 25 October, 2013 - 6:19

In July, after a strong campaign and big demonstrations in Lewisham, South London, a judicial review blocked the plans of a Special Administrator, backed by the Government, to close major services at Lewisham Hospital. Jill Mountford, an activist in the campaign, reviews its successes and prospects.

The government is appealing against the High Court decision. The hearing takes place on 28 and 29 October.

The Government wants to overturn our legal victory, to clear the way for more closures and downgrades on recommendations from Trust Special Administrators (TSA). But it thinks it is on a loser with their appeal and so is rushing through Parliament right now an amendment to the Health and Social Care Act giving the government or Monitor (the official overall regulating body for health services) the right to order any hospital they like to “reconfigure” or close with little consultation.

Health minister Lord Howe says this amendment will “put beyond doubt” that closures will in future be lawful.

But, one year on, there is a growing shared understanding in the community that a victory for Lewisham hospital is a victory for the whole of the NHS. SLHC’s high court victory challenged the first use of legislation that will be used to close down and downgrade hospitals all over England. We are determined to sustain that victory.

Our strategy document notes: “A successful outcome of the Lewisham case will have far-reaching implications for the hospitals and trusts all over England, leaving the government’s policy of using the Unsustainable Provider legislation to close hospitals unworkable…

“We recognise that Lewisham Hospital cannot be safe unless the NHS is safe; that the threats to Lewisham Hospital are part of a wider attack on the NHS (cuts, privatisation, PFI); that a victory in one area is a victory for all; that solidarity with campaigners in other areas is vital; and that we have to take up and campaign on the wider issues that threaten Lewisham as much as the rest of the NHS…

“[SLHC’s] strength is our focus is on Lewisham: success in Lewisham will inspire campaigns elsewhere to fight on to defend their hospitals and services. The direct threat to Lewisham Hospital is the reason thousands have come out onto the streets to support it”.

Our strategy document says: “Regardless of the outcome of the Government appeal, there are likely to be further attempts to close the hospital. The TSA process was not the first attempt and won’t be the last.

“There was a serious attempt to close Lewisham Hospital as a district general hospital in 2008 with ‘A Picture of Health’, which was a reorganisation of services across South East London and which led to the creation of the South London Healthcare Trust of Queen Mary’s, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Royal Hospitals.

“Lewisham was earmarked for downgrading during that period but, due to local campaigning, which included Lewisham Council and the Lewisham healthcare community, involving local health activists and Lewisham GPs, this plan was abandoned.

“Nevertheless this was always seen as unfinished business — a point made by NHS London and also implied in the letter from Matthew Kershaw (TSA) to Jeremy Hunt in April 2012.

“If we win the appeal and the TSA legislation is deemed unlawful the Government could come back again to try to close Lewisham using the standard reconfiguration process that is currently being applied in North West London, South West London and other areas of the country.

“Lewisham could be included in proposals to try to close nine London hospitals that were announced in a document published in the summer by NHS London (an organisation that was abolished under the NHS reforms but already resurfacing in a new form and likely to continue to push these plans).

“If we lose the appeal, we will continue a mass campaign protesting against the decision, involving the whole community and hospital staff, and liaising closely with other campaigns against hospital and service cuts and closures across London and England.

“Regardless of the outcome of the appeal we will stay vigilant and ready to oppose any plans that lead to downgrading or loss of our hospital or other NHS services locally”.

We will continue to build locally. We will work to develop the campaign across the newly merged Lewisham and Greenwich Healthcare Trust, involving greater numbers of hospital staff and community campaigners across two boroughs rather than one.

More than 120 people attended the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign (SLHC) meeting to discuss strategy on Tuesday 8 October. The eight-page strategy document quoted above, looking back at the successes over the past year and forward to the next six months, formed the basis of the evening’s animated discussion.

SLHC is a strikingly successful broad–based campaign, united to defend Lewisham Hospital against closure.

It combines many talented people, some new to campaigning and others well-seasoned, some with well-formed political perspectives and others with quite loosely formed and fluid political views, all united to stop the Government from closing our hospital.

Over the past year we have had consistently big campaign meetings. Initially they were weekly; now, monthly, we still regularly have 70 or 80 people filling and overflowing the room at the local health centre.

The campaign meetings now alternate with a steering committee meeting of around 25 campaigners. Those who have been around a long time and or are part of the organised left have had to learn to tolerate each other or they have stopped attending.

For some it’s their first time being involved in a genuine broad based campaign, for others it’s the first for a long, long time. People have had to agree to disagree on many issues in the interests of the broad aims of the campaign, or simply stop taking part.

A genuine broad-based campaign like this requires a different approach from the one that some on the organised left have grown used to. Packing meetings and shouting loudest really only works when the left is isolated from the broad movement.

Some of the local organised left groups have dipped in and out of the campaign over the past year, usually pursuing small sectarian goals without any overall perspective on why or how they think the campaign should develop. They tend not to see the difference between a genuine broad-based campaign and a self-proclaimed “broad” campaign which is in fact no more than a “front” organisation for one group or another.

In SLHC no one left group has been allowed to dominate simply by numbers or volume. Some left groups disappeared to plough their narrow sectarian furrows elsewhere; others retreated to muddle through the difficulties of their own organisation; one or two stomped off petulantly when the campaign failed to take on “their position”.

AWL locally took a different approach. For the past year we have consistently and constructively intervened in SLHC, playing a central role in developing strategy and tactics, and putting in the groundwork required to build a broad-based campaign.

We have our own ideas and arguments, but they are geared to building the broad-based campaign essential to push back the government and rally people to save the NHS.

People Before Profit, a small but active local group of campaigners with roots in the Communist Party and similar, have until recently played a useful role in the SLHC.

But with local elections in mind, and a rabid and subjective blanket hatred of the Labour Party locally and nationally, they have made a sectarian lurch in recent weeks. They have called for the SLHC to make a national initiative on PFI at the expense of fighting locally to defend Lewisham Hospital. They have attempted to get the campaign to focus its efforts on opposing a merger between Lewisham Hospital and Queen Elizabeth Hospital into the Lewisham and Greenwich Healthcare Trust, despite the fact that the merger was already a legal entity.

They have claimed, dubiously, that opposing the merger is the only left-wing position, and insisted that anyone who doesn’t support their lurches is right wing and implicitly supports PFI or even the Health and Social Care Act itself.

They have put their desire to manufacture a left profile in opposition to the Labour Party for the local elections next year before the interests of the broad campaign.

In the 8 October meeting, aligned with some ultra-lefts who have done very little in the campaign, People Before Profit attempted to steer the campaign into national work against PFI, but failed to make headway. They lost their amendments by around 35 to 85 votes.

The strategy document recognises that the campaign’s “existence is contingent on the support of a spectrum of people and groups with different opinions. There should be room for all those views within the campaign as long as we stay focused on the primary aim of the campaign, which is opposition to the closure of Lewisham A&E, Maternity and other acute services”.

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