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27 June 2018

NHS SOS: editorial of the Socialist, issue 1001

After the 30 June NHS demo - prepare for a mass movement

Let's defend our NHS: organise to stop privatisation and cuts

The Health Campaigns Together and People's Assembly demonstration on 30 June is an important event for all who are fighting to save the NHS. As we go to press it is unclear how many will attend, but previous protests and what we hear when talking to working class people in workplaces and communities show the appetite there is for a movement in defence of the health service.

The Socialist Party has been building for the demonstration and will fully participate in it. We will be talking to people about what needs to happen next. Because while demonstrations are important as a show of strength and to give confidence to all involved, they won't win alone. 30 June should be a launch pad for mass action involving communities, young people and with workers - particularly health workers - and their unions at the fore.

The demo has been called partly to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the NHS on 5 July 1948. Next week's edition of the Socialist will carry a feature on how working class people fought for and won a national health service free for all at the point of use. The milestone has been marked in many media outlets by nostalgic pieces trying to capture the mood in Britain during the post-war period.

We should of course remember the struggles that won the welfare state, and the workers who have maintained it for generations. But the most important feature of this demonstration is about the struggle today. All of the former NHS workers being interviewed by the establishment press are very clear that, as 89-year-old retired nurse Laurel Robertson put it speaking to the Guardian: "The NHS is in a bad state. Last November, I was admitted as a patient at King's College hospital for two weeks. There were no beds for me at the start so I spent two days on a trolley in casualty." 80% of staff say they have raised concerns about staffing levels having an impact on patient safety and care.

Bed shortage

The shortage of beds in particular was made stark this winter when there were numerous accounts of patients waiting in corridors or even in ambulances for long periods when they arrived at A&E. The British Medical Journal alleged that 10,000 extra people may have died in the first few weeks of 2018, in part because of the crisis.

Theresa May, feeling the anger about this and the state of the service in general, claims 20 billion extra will be made available to the NHS over five years. On one hand, this is a substantial move that the Tories didn't want to make. It shows that May is aware of how weak her position is, and that the government cannot afford a mass movement to break out. On the other, the money is simply not enough to reverse the damage that has been done to the NHS through huge cuts and privatisation. It will as best "help stem further decline", as the Health Foundation think-tank put it.

That's not to mention the question of whether the cash actually materialises. May suggests it will be funded in part by the so-called 'Brexit dividend' - even though she was a Remain campaigner who ridiculed the idea that there would be any such thing. The rest, she says, will need to come from raising taxes. She doesn't mean taxes on the super-rich and big business, but on hard-pressed workers suffering years of stagnated pay and rising prices.

Nothing will be gifted to us by the Tories - we need to fight. And working class people have shown themselves willing to fight time and again - with many successes. Glenfield children's heart unit in Leicester, Chatsworth rehabilitation ward in Mansfield and the Huddersfield Royal Infirmary are three recent examples where Socialist Party members have played a leading role in campaigns that have won major victories. Those campaigns share many things. They refused to accept that cuts and closures were necessary. They explored every avenue. And they mobilised the community and the workers involved.

If we take the same approach we can have these successes on a national scale too. Fundamental to this is the trade unions taking a lead. The 30 June demo has backing from the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and at least eleven national unions. But unfortunately, as with the TUC demonstration on 12 May, many union leaders have not taken a serious approach to building for it. The event is not even advertised on the TUC website! This means that even if it is a good and big demonstration, it will not reach the potential of what would have been possible had the unions used their full resources to publicise and mobilise.

But this can be turned around in the aftermath of the demo. Unfortunately, following the leaderships' failure to campaign and give members confidence that anything more could be won, 13 of the 14 health unions voted to accept the government's poor pay offer. The GMB will be conducting a strike ballot for an improved offer, which the Socialist Party fully supports.

Pay battle

The rejection from GMB members, along with local votes for action - such as the Mid Yorkshire NHS Trust strike against privatisation - show that when a lead is given, there is a mood for action. This must be heeded in future battles. All health unions should prepare now to launch and properly build serious campaigns, including strike action, against all attempts to further cut or privatise the service or to attack workers' terms and conditions. They should reach out to the community and organise public meetings on the state of the NHS and call local demonstrations. If serious campaigns like this could be launched over the next few months, another properly-built-for national demonstration in the autumn could be huge.

As we pointed out in last week's issue, the cash boost from May is an attempt to prepare for a general election. She recognises that the chaos of Brexit and the ever-deepening divisions in the Tories mean she may be forced to call one at any time. Jeremy Corbyn's manifesto pledges on the NHS in last year's general election were a major factor in the surge to support him. But he needs to seize the moment to be preparing much more than May is.

That means a serious campaign to mobilise all those who backed him - inside and outside Labour - to join this demonstration and other campaign events in defence of the NHS. Those who flocked to mass rallies during his leadership and general election campaigns would respond to calls for action on anti-austerity issues if he gives a lead. This means having a clear policy to fully renationalise the NHS - kicking out all the privatisers with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need.

But it also means preparing Labour by clearing out the Blairites - who implemented major privatisation of the NHS when in power - and democratising the party. This is necessary to remove the obstacles inside Corbyn's own party that would attempt to prevent him implementing his radical anti-austerity programme, including on the NHS, should he be elected.