Why is there no national campaign to save the NHS?
This is a repost of an old article I wrote in 2012, about the lack of action by the unions and professional organisations to defend the NHS. Given how little action they have organised in the two years following this articles publication, its time those of us committed to defending the NHS take the lead and organise a national movement to save it.
Why, in the face of massive opposition, is more not being done to stop the government’s privatisation of the NHS?
Aneurin Bevan famously said that “The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it” With the Health and Social Care Bill lurching ever closer to being passed, the big question in activists minds is; where is the national campaign to stop it? The jewel in the crown of the welfare state is about to be stolen from us, about to be handed over to greedy entrepreneurs and private finance. Britain could soon be a place where profit is made out of sickness.
Despite the looming disaster – Lansley’s bill is actually profoundly unpopular. With almost every union and professional organisation representing NHS staff now opposing the bill and calling for its withdrawal, and swingeing criticism being leveled at Andrew Lansley’s reform even from the House of Commons Health Select Committee, chaired by ex-Health Secretary and Tory Stephen Dorrell, there is precious little support for Lansley or the government to draw on.
What is shocking when you look at the image though is that despite the overwhelming opposition, a national campaign to stop the bill has not been launched by any of these organisations.
Neither UNISON (400,000 members in health), the Royal College of Nurses (395,000), UNITE (100,000) or the British Medical Aassociation (140,000) has initiated a campaign or tried to mobilise its membership against the bill, despite the massive social force they collectively represent. And thats not counting the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists (50,000), the GMB (60,000)As this graphic from the NHS Support Federation nicely demonstrates, the opposition to the bill is truely overwhelming. Lansley and Cameron can try and hide behind the figleaf of the NHS Alliance and the National Association of Primary Care, but these organisations have little or no weight with the public and are both long standing pro-market organisations.
So how come if there is so much opposition there is so little campaigning to stop the privatisation of the NHS?
The fault lies with the leadership of these organisations. Their purely verbal opposition so far has severely damaged the bill, yet it is still limping towards the finish line and the Tories are committed to it as a key part of their austerity agenda. Cameron has stated he will push the bill through parliament, no matter what the Lords do to it. For those who place even a little faith in the Lords being able to change the bill, just take a look at the governments behaviour around the Welfare Bill. After the Lords amended the bill to raise the benefit cap to £50,000, effectively making the cap useless, the government simply committed to amending it back in the commons and voting it through.
The same will happen with the Health and Social Care Bill unless the unions act. They are all supposedly committed to a publicly owned and funded NHS, so why has there been so little action?
One reason is the unions links to the Labour Party. UNITE and UNISON are massive donors to the Labour Party, and during the Labour government displayed unswerving loyalty to them despite the effects of Blair and Browns reforms of the NHS, namely PFI schemes, the creation of foundation trusts able to carry out private work, and the use of the “independent sector” (read: private sector) to reduce waiting lists.
Now Labour is in opposition and has essentially signed up to the Tory austerity package, the unions leaderships are careful not to go beyond what the Labour party might want, or rock the boat to an extent that Labour get saddled with a victory they don’t want, or worse, the Tories government is destabilised before their austerity agenda is complete and Labour win a snap election leaving them in charge in the middle of the economic crisis.
Also at work is the pernicious ideology of “New Realism” that has gripped the unions since the defeat of the miners strike in the 1980s. The idea holds that unions can’t hope to defeat a government on policy, so they are limited to offering verbal opposition, while restricting themselves to defending the limited ground of pay and terms and conditions. Anything more is held to be self-defeating and risks damaging the union if they enter into a confrontation with the government.
For this reason, faced with a massive restructuring of the NHS, the unions offer plenty of verbal opposition, but have not held a single mass demonstration against the bill even though it will destroy the NHS, impoverish millions and create untold suffering for millions more.
The latest action they have called is a Save The NHS rally on March 7th. The rally is organised on a weekday, in central London, minimising attendance. It is almost as if they do not want to win!
And whilst the opposition from the professional organisations is welcome, we can’t rely on lobbying and open letters from medical professionals to knock the government back.
If we compare how successful the student movement was with getting the opposition against the education cuts into the mainstream media and mobilising thousands of people across the country in a common cause with the campaign against the NHS reforms we can see how far behind we are. The students marched 20,000 people down to parliament on the day of the tuition fee vote – can we say the same on the day that Lansley’s bill goes through parliament?
People who want to fight to save the NHS need to get organised and link up the activists across the unions and outside of them that can defeat the government’s plans. We should take some inspiration from the Sparks – they called a conference, elected a steering committee and organised weekly protests. Let’s do the same!