Trade unions, the Labour left and Labour NHS campaigners failed to raise the issue of NHS pay at Labour Party conference – or, more exactly, did not try.
Rank-and-file NHS workers, organised through NHS Workers Say No, Nurses United and other networks as well as their various unions, are focusing on a difficult struggle to get industrial action off the ground. Some of them were invited to speak at various fringe meetings at the conference.
But beyond that minimal gesture there was little attempt by unions and Labour activists present at the conference to use it to boost NHS workers’ campaign. This was a real missed opportunity.
15 organisations – 13 Constituency Labour Parties, LGBT Labour and the Socialist Health Association (SHA), Labour’s official health campaign – submitted motions on the NHS. Of these only a few referred to pay even in a very vague way (see all motions submitted here; NHS motions start p209). This despite the fact that quite a few of them came from left-wing CLPs, and despite the fact that the SHA is now run by the left.
It seems quite a lot of the Labour left, and quite a lot of NHS campaigner, don’t understand how central the struggle of NHS workers is to saving the health service. (I don’t entirely let my AWL comrades off the hook. There were probably at least a couple of CLP meetings where we could have amended NHS motions to include a pay demand, but didn’t. Obviously these things don’t always occur in the moment.)
Only one CLP, Old Bexley and Sidcup, included support for health workers’ demand for a 15% increase in its motion. All honour to its members for doing that! However by the time the final composited motion got to conference (see here, p15), their demand had disappeared. It’s not totally clear, but from what I can make out their delegates were right-wingers who in the compositing meeting easily dropped the text their members had voted for.
Even with this fiasco over motions, there are things that could have been done at the conference. A statement in support of the 15% fight, taken round the conference and its fringe events with minimal energy, would have got many hundreds and probably thousands of signatures. It is not hard to imagine a significant demonstration outside the conference.
Momentum, with all its resources, did nothing about the issue at the conference – not even a session at its The World Transformed festival.
There is a longer running problem. Even last year, when NHS workers were mobilising significant street protests, the Labour left, left MPs and so on did not seem particularly responsive. The Socialist Campaign Group of Left MPs initially put out statements calling for “a pay rise” but not mentioning the 15% / £3,000 (whichever is higher) demand.
Then there is the unions.
The three biggest affiliates to Labour are three of the four biggest unions in health – Unison, GMB and Unite. GMB and Unite support 15%, with different variants of the flat-rate demand; Unison supports £2,000. None put anything on NHS pay to the conference; or did much of anything else at the conference about it.
New Unite general secretary Sharon Graham missed the conference to go to picket lines, citing her commitment to focus on her members’ “workplace” interests, particularly pay and terms and conditions. Whether she was there personally or not, why didn’t she use the opportunity of the conference to promote the interests of the 90,000 Unite members who work in health?
Imagine if Unite had submitted the 15% demand to Labour conference and called a demonstration outside. (Or if the left majority on Unison’s NEC had called a demonstration. Or someone had...)
There is a chronic problem of the unions not fighting for their policies and their members’ interests in the party. This is an important component of their more general lack of fight.
The failings of the Labour left, Labour NHS campaigners and the unions meant Starmer and co. easily got off the hook of what could have been a very difficult issue for them.
In the months ahead, helping NHS workers get industrial action off the ground and supporting that action will be the most important thing. But political campaigning is part of that, and we should not miss any more opportunities like the one we just missed.