Saturday 3 March saw the first nationally coordinated day of action in defence of the NHS for nearly twenty years, organised by the TUC led NHS Together group of unions and professional organisations.
Most of the great and good of the trade union movement turned out to speak and give soundbites to local papers and regional television news programmes. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber told a rally of 1,000 in Sheffield, warning how the government was risking all its good work by rushing ahead with further reform “too quickly”. It’s not the speed of progress but its direction that is the problem!
In Birmingham, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said the protests were “testament to the growing number of people worried about the future of our NHS.”
But there were fewer than 500 mobilised from across the Midlands: given that in the last year we have seen local demonstrations in excess of 20,000, any honest assessment must conclude that 3 March didn’t reach its full potential. That is not to take away credit from those who did attend and build for the event. But they were working against the deadweight of a union bureaucracy determined to keep everything at a low level.
There is a threat that some local campaigns will plateau if the campaign cannot be kicked up a gear to the regional and national level.
You can fill in time with extra stunts, demos, etc., but ultimately the local campaigns are dealing with symptoms of a national policy.
There has been a significant increase in local industrial action against cuts and redundancies: victories for striking nurses in Manchester and community campaigns against hospital closures in Suffolk and East Yorkshire.
Such positive examples should be publicised and celebrated. The decision by Unison Health to call for a national demo (probably on 14 July).
National action will give the campaign an identity as a serious force on the national political stage. Keep Our NHS Public has an opportunity at its planned May conference to take that project forward. KONP conference should take for itself the model (but not the politics or lack of democracy!) ofthe Anti Nazi League, drawing in a range of celebrities, getting sponsorship from local and regional trade union organisations and winning a serious community base.
After the announcement of the public sector pay freeze there is a new wave of anger amongst healthworkers which can be drawn into the campaign.
The one unlimited resource the campaign does have is the support of the public. Veteran activists will tell you they’ve never has such an easy time getting people to sign petitions or take leaflets as with this campaign. We need is the financial and organisational resources of the unions to realise the potential of that support.
Ultimately we will also need the industrial strength of the unions exercised in national action if we are to stop, and then reverse, the runaway course of privatisation.