Saturday, 3 March 2007

Birmingham: NHS Day of Action

Around this time last March the University Hospital of North Staffordshire announced 1,100 job losses, encompassing porters, office staff, nurses, doctors, consultants and research scientists. In response Stoke SP called for and built a successful public meeting at very short notice, out of which emerged the North Staffs NHS SOS campaign. At the beginning activists from the SP, SWP, Greens, Unison, Royal College of Nursing and those of no fixed political abode managed to work together, often fractiously but quite effectively, and their hard work bore fruit in the 2,500-strong demo that marched from UHNS to Hanley. Unfortunately since then the unions have done nothing. Both refused to countenance the idea of building anything bigger than local opposition, and both boycotted a regional demo in Birmingham last summer to oppose the cuts.

What has happened in Stoke has been repeated elsewhere. Cuts are announced, a local demo of staff and patients called by the health service unions/union-backed campaign group takes place, and then nothing.

Today’s day of action organised under the aegis of NHS Together has then been a long time coming. but the whole thing was marked by union leadership's (particularly Unison’s leadership) to keep the incipient movement firmly under their control. Instead of one united demo our strength has been dissipated among several regional mobilisations. This just isn't good enough. It really makes you wonder, who does the Unison leadership value more; the interests of the government, or the interests of the members being attacked by this self-same government?

Despite the half-arsed nature of the union initiative, SP members from around the country mobilised to critically support the action and use the opportunity to make the case for a national demonstration backed by industrial action against the cuts. In the West Midlands we are particularly fortuitous to have been an integral part of the movement from the beginning, and this was reflected with the warmth and friendliness with which we were received on the Birmingham rally. We had comrades down from Coventry, Leicester, Derby, Nottingham, Worcester, Stoke and, of course, Brum itself, and our intervention was very successful (350-plus papers, hundreds of pounds raised, a good number of contacts). But aside from success in the conventional sense of papers and money, more important were the discussions we had with the assembled health staff. Of the dozens I spoke to virtually all were in agreement with our proposals on how to take the movement forward. No one thought the union leadership were up to the task, and even fewer held out the belief that things would be any better under Gordon Brown.

Two events stood out from the rally. First was the lack of direction offered by the trade union worthies and bureaucrats who spoke – pretty appalling considering Dave Prentis was one of them! As if to compound their bankruptcy they refused to allow a speaker from People United to Save Hospitals to say a few words from the stage, who instead addressed the rally from a megaphone after the speechifying was over. The second was the decision of around 50 health workers to go on an impromptu march around Birmingham, seeing as the unions couldn’t even bring themselves to organise a demo. Sticking my neck out, I think this shows a section of workers are alienated by Unison’s deliberate do-nothing stance and are increasingly willing to take matters into their own hands.

For the more sectarian AVPS readers out there, the WestMids left were all there. Keen spotters like me and Larry Cain of Cov observed comrades from Workers’ Power, Permanent Revolution, AWL, ISG, the Morning Star’s CPB and the tankie-dominated Campaign against Euro-Federalism(!). The SWP were there too with a normal party stall and one for Respect. Comrades more inclined toward a spot of sect-Kremlinology will be interested to learn Salma Yaqoob was nowhere to be seen. But the main thing that struck me was how disorientated non-SP comrades seemed. It was as if comrades used to campaigning on issues like the war in Iraq and other related concerns were left all at sea when it came to engaging with a bread and butter issue like NHS cuts, an observation backed up by many a comrade in the pub afterwards.

In summary can the day be regarded as a success? In a way, yes. Despite NHS Together’s bungling (and I mean serious bungling, the 52 seater coach from UHNS for instance, only carried nine down because of a lack of a campaign in the hospital to fill it!) there were about 500 health workers present. As I’ve already said there were encouraging signs among these workers too concerning the direction the movement needs to go in and a healthy willingness to take what the bureaucrats say with a pinch of salt. On the other hand all this could have been accomplished eight or nine months ago if the unions had been more interested in protecting their members rather than the government. Their failure to do so condemns them and also means the anti-cuts movement still has a long way to go.


Liam Mac Uaid said...

The East London one was much more routine. I've linked to your account.

Red Cynic said...

What excatly is wrong with "campaigning on issues like the war in Iraq and other related concerns"
as you put it?
We all know that increased military spending=increase in public service cuts. The issues are linked and this point must be made at every opportunity.
If you only eat bread and butter you will eventually die of malnutrition.
Am surprised that cde Salma Yacoob wasn't there, as far as Im concerned she's one of Respects better ones. Maybe she had legitimate personal/family reasons for not being there?

Mark P said...

He didn't say that there is anything wrong with campaigning on issues like Iraq. Given that the Socialist Party has spent a great deal of time and effort doing just that, it would be odd if had.

The point he was making was that some sections of the left seem to be only interested in such issues and tend to neglect basic class issues at home.

Red Cynic said...

I don't disagree that the SP does good work on the war. Certainly the best of a bad, and I mean very bad bunch on the Brit left. Bit weak on anti imperialist struggle for my liking though, so won't be joining in a hurry even though after the debacle of the Socialist Alliance I'm politically homeless at the moment.
Thought Phil's tone was rather dismissive of other socialists who have devoted most of their time in recent years fighting against imperialism.

Dave A said...

Describing the whole of the rest of the left as disorientated is sectariana. If that was backed up by many comrades in the pub afterwards it says more about the Socialist Party than anyone else.

Since when was the dismantling of the NHS a bread and butter issue?

Red Cynic said...

True. If saving the NHS isn't a bread and butter issue, what is?

Phil said...

Comrades Cynic and Dave are mistaken for trying to read sectarianism into my comments., I was just making an honest observation. The other lefts at the Brum rally weren't particularly energetic or well organised. If this was the case with the SP then I would say so. I don't do sectarian bombast comrades, life's too short.

Dave A said...

Cynic: for thousands of us in the working class saving the NHS is potentially a life and death issue. Describing it as a bread and butter issue downgrades its importance.

Phil: I wasn't questioning your intentions, or your record of making honest observations. But the Socialist Party discussions in the pub after the rally, which passed me by at the time, do seem to have been a reversion to the bad old days dismissing the whole of the rest of the left as sects who can't relate to workers.

Permanent Revolution and Workers Power were the only groups on the left whose entire (tiny) membership in the midlands were at the rally - unless I missed lots of faces in the crowds :-)

Any lack of energy on our part (and wp's) was down to poor health. There were no signs that anyone there was disorganised, though it would be interesting to find out why such a small proportion of the SWP turned up.

Red Cynic said...

It is indeed a life and death issue, I'm sure most of has had or know someone with some experience of that.
Maybe we should define what exactly is a bread and butter issue? What does it mean to you?
Dissing other left groups is a hallmark of the SP (Phil expected of course) which quite frankly I find a total turn off.
Lets get real here, the truth is some groups do some things better than others, the sooner that is acknowledged the better for all of us.

Dave A said...

A bread and butter issue is one which concerns the immediate economic interests of workers, and no less important for that.

And sure, some groups do some things better than others. But Permanent Revolution, Workers Power, the ISG and even the AWL in the West Midlands are lifelong labour movement activists. Whatever criticisms could be made, one that just doesn't wash is that any of us are too disoriented by campaigning against imperialist wars to respond on bread and butter issues.

Mark P said...

Hurt feelings all around it seems.

Red Cynic said...

Thanks for explaining that to me Dave.
Think the SP in the West Mids especially in Coventry have also been life long labour movement activists who have and continue to do good work.
Its hard to find anyone on the left with more street cred than Dave Nellist in my opinion.

Phil said...

It wasn't about dismissing the rest of the left Dave, it was what we thought of the intervention of the other groups, and particularly the SWP. For example after September's Manchester anti-war demo a bunch of us had similar discussions about how well we thought the SWP were organised, as well as Workers Power. It has nothing to do with doing down other tendencies on the left, much less a return to the bad old days.

AN said...

Perhaps the laack of turnout from the SWP is simply becasue they aren't as big as you think? Or rather mre accurately - that the internal mechanisms of party organisation have become rather incapable of mobilising all but the most committed members - so much of the SWP's more passive membership is very hard to mobilise, except for very big national events.

Dave A said...

The SWP mobilised a lot more of their members from Birmingham and the Black Country for the Respect Organising Fighting Unions rally this Monday than they did across the whole Midlands region for the NHS rally on Saturday. Their Black Country members aren't passive. Yet none of them made it to the NHS rally, while several managed to get to Brum for the Respect rally despite foul weather and major traffic jams.

Some (but not all) the other reports of the regional NHS rallies also commented on the low profile of the SWP presence. Perhaps they are so sunk into the populist routines of Respect that they didn't give the NHS rallies a high priority? At the very least, they obviously gave the Respect rally in Brum a higher priority than the NHS rally - yet another sign of how far their opportunist practice is cutting them off from an ability to respond to the issues which are central for the working class.

AN said...


I don't think that there is a big difference bwteen what you are saying and what i am saying, remember that the SWP no longer operates a branch structure.

So for the SWP's overblown infrastructure of full-timers the party initiated Respect rally will be their priority, beacsueu it is their job to increase membership, etc - whatever the party says, that is how they are actually judged by their employer,

But in the absense of a branch structure that allows activists to exchange experince, and set their own priorites - as the SWP used to have - then the members are difficult to mobilise.

All I am saying is that there is a structural problem - not necessarily relted to political perspectives. Many SWP members may have attended but wouldn't have known about it, or didn't appreciate the importance.

Red Cynic said...

Instead of having a go at the SWP, which I understand were very much in evidence in Preston and London, why not condemn the cowardly union leadership who refused to have a national demo and are in effect trying to prevent the struggle from kicking off properly, the best they could come up with in London was a boring rally addressed by their bureaucrats.

Dave A said...

The pathetic response from the union leaders was covered in Phil's original post. Is there anyone on the left who thinks otherwise?

The question is: what can we do about it? IMO the low turnout from health workers at the rallies, just after the announcement of pay cuts in the pay award, show that it is not just down to the perfidity of the bureaucracy. There is a long way to go in rebuilding union organisation on the ground.

Having a go at the SWP: in the midlands they had only an almost token presence at the NHS rally on Saturday lunchtime, then a much bigger mobilisation for the Respect Organising Fighting Unions rally on the Monday evening.

All me and Andy are saying (and I agree there isn't any big difference) is that this is a symptom of a mistaken real set of priorities which counterposes building the party to building the struggles of workers. Nothing wrong with building the party of course. But a central way of doing this is to build the biggest possible presence on events like the NHS rally.

Red Cynic said...

Isn't the absence of the SWP a good thing for the rest of the left then? Less competition for recruits, especially as far as the SP is concerned?
If they turned up in numbers, you guys would slag them off for other reasons.
They just can't win can they? Well lets face it we don't really want them to do we?

Dave A said...

Believe it or not, we didn't go along from Permanent Revolution expecting loads of recruits. There were no signs that anyone, including the SP, were handing out membership cards like free samples, in the way the SWP has sometimes done in recent years.

It's likely that if they had been there in bigger numbers some of us would indeed have been criticising them for what they were saying. But coming near to abstaining on such a key issue is a sign of how far they have gone in putting the priorities of their own organisation over the needs of workers.

It isn't about one small group or another winning - and even the SWP is small and marginal - but what is needed if we are to play a part in rebuilding working class organisation which can start to win in resisting the neo-liberal attacks on us all.

Red Cynic said...

I agree, especially your last paragraph. So can anyone tell me whats happening with the CNWP? Its not the total answer, but a small start in the right direction. As Chairman Mao(a wise old bat sometimes)said "The long march starts with the smallest step"

Leftwing Criminologist said...

well, the second conference is coming up in may, the details are on the website