The biggest privatisation so far of any part of the NHS is now underway.
The Blair government intends to transfer £3.5 billion worth of contracts from the publicly owned NHS Logistics, which organises the provision of half a million product lines, to DHL, a privately-owned German distribution company.
What can anyone do about it? As we go to press a number of junior Government ministers have resigned because Blair refuses to let go of political power. Even if Gordon Brown soon takes the place of Blair as Prime Minister, the relentless New Labour drive to privatise the NHS will go on. Brown and Blair are political twins.
So we repeat, what can anyone do about it? The workers at five NHS Logistics sites spread across the country, are balloting on strike action about their conditions. If they strike, despite the law that forbids politically motivated strike action, it will effectively be about privatisation.
The truth, however is that unless the trade unions begin to mount a determined campaign, now, it is all too likely that this privatisation will go through, and others after it, until there is little left of the NHS which the Labour Government set up in 1948.
Why don’t the left trade union leaders draw a political line, stand on it and fight for the NHS? Is it for the same reason that the Labour Party refused to do that during most of the 18 years after 1979, when the Thatcher gang were wrecking the NHS?
But do the left-talking trade union leaders still believe in an NHS like that was set up in 1948? Or don’t they?
The post 1945 Welfare State, of which the NHS was the crowning achievement, was the fruit of 150 years of working-class political activity. By way of that Welfare State the labour movement created barriers against extremes of poverty, against prolonged homelessness, against the grinding down and “stigmatising” of the poor. Indeed, after 1945, the very term “the poor” — not to speak of the Victorian notion of the “undeserving poor” — disappeared from common parlance for more than three decades.
Capitalists still robbed and exploited workers and tyrannised over them at work. But outside work the labour movement had won new rights for the working class. People who were old or sick or unfortunate no longer starved to death, or slept in large numbers on the street. And nobody died because they could not pay for medical treatment.
The working-class principle of an equal right to life was proclaimed by the labour movement and embodied in a National Health Service in which money could not buy, and the lack of money could not deny you, the best available health care.
The rich still could and did buy advantages, but nobody now defended the view that poor people were not equally entitled to the best possible health care. That is a viewpoint that emerged from the fever-ridden political swamps of the Tory ultra-right only in the 1980s.
Perhaps for the first time in human history — revolutionary working class Russia in 1917 was too poor for it — the principle of equality in one important sphere of social life, in health care, came close to being fully realised.
There were of course, great flaws and contradictions in the labour movement’s achievement. This no means-test Welfare State was set up in a society that was still a class society, and therefore it brought the educated middle classes and even the bourgeoisie immense advantages too; they could use it with more skill and expertise than working class people did. But this “class-blindness” ensured its universality, where means testing would have led to the creation of substandard provision and “welfare ghettos” for the poor.
And the labour movement, in 1945 and after, committed the great and fatal error of leaving the capitalist class in control of the commanding heights of the economy and the state. Nevertheless, the reformists who led that movement could truly lay claim to great achievements.
Fifteen years on from the 1945 Labour election victory that made that Welfare State possible, the Labour leaders could convincingly claim lasting achievements, too. The Tories, when they came back to government in 1951, did not dare attack the Welfare State, so overwhelming was the support, even among the middle classes, for what the labour movement had done after 1945.
But today the Welfare State is in ruins. We had eighteen years of rule by the filthiest gang of Tory barbarians this century. By way of a thousand lacerating cuts, the Tories bled the Health Service — the heart of the Welfare State Labour built. Like an insidious disease they worked away, undermining, sapping, destroying the Welfare State, and its crowning glory, the Health Service.
And the Labour Party? Since 1997 we have had a New Labour government which, though it has thrown money at the NHS, is determined to privatise it. It took up where the Thatcherites left off.
More and more openly they now, following where Thatcher led, proclaim that the poor do not have the right to equal health care that is, that the poor do not have an equal right to life. “Rationing” is necessary for those who cannot pay.
Most people in Britain are hostile to what is being done to the Health Service. But still they do it.
How can the Blaire-Brown neo-Tories be stopped? How can they be prevented from doing what the big majority of the electors do not want them to do? How can the will of the majority of the British people be given effective expression against a government hell-bent on ignoring it?
How can the mass of people who oppose the privatisation of the Health Service, be mobilised and set in motion as a force the government, be it led by Brown, Blair, Reed, will have to reckon with?
Ultimately, only the labour movement, which created the NHS, can stop it being transformed out of all recognition, for the worse.
The question now facing the leftish trade union leaders — most of whom appear to be backing Gordon Brown for leader of the Labour Party — is do they want to go on, on this issue, being to the Blairs and Browns what Neal Kinnock and then Tony Blair, were to the Tories during their drive against the NHS?
The Labour leaders could not have had an easier or more popular case to argue. Yet, where they should have roared out angry defiance they mumbled apologetically. They squealed in little protests where they should have thundered with the indignation felt by many millions of people. They quibbled about details where they should have taken a clear and immovable stand on the great labour movement principle of equal health care for all. Their response had neither force nor credibility, nor consistency. Why?
Inwardly, they accepted the basic Tory case against the NHS.
Do Tony Woodley and the others accept the Blair-Brown case for privatising? If they don’t, will they fight the New Labour leaders on the issue? Will they mobilise the labour movement against them?
In a society which spends vast millions on arms, which devotes immense amounts of wealth to sustain the upper classes, the Labour leaders went along with the idea that state-of-the-art health care for everyone would be too expensive!
Do the left trade union leaders now agree with Blair-Brown that the new medical technology, and the miracles of medicine opening up now after the mapping of the human genome, needs to be rationed for the poor?
In opposition and in office, the leaders of the Labour Party betrayed the best traditions of the labour movement on this question. Are scoundrels like Kinnock and Blair to be the model here for Woodley, Simpson and Prentis.
What was true of the Labour Party confronting Tory attacks on the NHS, is true now for the trade union leaders: ideas are central here. You cannot fight the Blairs and Browns if you accept their basic ideas, if you believe that the laws of capitalism and its market-regulated mechanisms, and not the needs of the working class are the highest court of appeal.
In order to beat the Blair-Brown offensive, the labour movement must sort its ideas out. Either that or it will be as ineffective as the Labour Party “opposing” the Tory Government
To oppose the Blairites, you need conviction.
The trade unions should boldly proclaim the principle that life comes before property. That the right to social care, including adequate health care, for everyone is a basic and inalienable right. On that basis they should rally the labour movement against the Blair-Brown neo-Thatcherites in defence of the NHS.
You simply can not express the basic difference in outlook between New Labour and Old Labour more powerfully than on the question of health care and the NHS.
We will never find a more powerful, more clear-cut, more emotion-charged issue than the NHS on which to express the human-beings first philosophy of the labour movement and counter pose it to the savage prattle and practices of the neo-Tory Blair-Brown camp!
In addition Blair has to go — though how long he can hang on we do not know. But not to be replaced by Brown, unchallenged and with the same set of politics. We meed to mobilise the activists within the unions to both fight for the NHS and to break from any illusions in Brown.
One good way to do that right now is by joining the campaign launched by John Mc Donnell MP to challenge Blair when and if there is a leadership contest.
Many millions already agree with us in their guts even though they may be oppressed by the dominant New Labour-Tory philosophy and not yet know how to answer it or what to do about it. A powerful labour movement campaign now to defend the NHS, organised by the trade unions, could give them the answer!
We need to rally those who agree that the purpose of the Labour Party should be to represent the working class in politics, and that the labour movement should aim for a workers’ government.
The labour movement that created the Health Service had its roots in a powerful governing idea expressed in the early years of the labour and socialist movement by men such as Henry Hyndman, William Morris, James Connol}y, and Keir Hardie, in these words: “A full, free, happy life, for all —or for none.” We must recall, apply, proclaim, and fight now for, that principle:
A full, free, state-of-the-art health care, for all or for none!