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.