Sophie Williams, a health activist in London reviews Mark Broothroyd’s pamphlet How Can we Save the NHS? recently published by the International Socialist Network
Recent weeks have seen a large vote for strike action by NHS England workers against real-term pay cuts. Although this is the first national NHS industrial action to be taken over pay for 32 years, for many, this ballot comes too little too late.
Staff and users of the NHS are already facing up to the reality of restructuring and competition in the wake of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, and many have been campaigning to prevent its damaging consequences. The most successful campaigns have fought on a single issue, led by dedicated activists and trade unionist, although in most cases, without the support of their national unions.
How Can We Save the NHS? outlines how such a divide has arisen between the unions and the members they represent, but also points to what needs to happen next.
NHS restructuring begins with the Labour Party and its commitment to private finance. Labour both opened the door to private companies working within the NHS, but also drafted the scam PFI contracts that now cause trusts to haemorrhage hospitals’ funds. The relationship between the unions and Labour compromised unions ability to organise effective campaigns. Bureaucratic controls were used to limit grass-roots organising.
This undermined campaigns on the ground, and has held back the level of national coordination required to build a militant network of NHS activists. The most successful NHS campaigns, Keep Our NHS Public, 999 Call for the NHS, UK Uncut, the National Health Action Party, Save Our Surgeries and campaigns to save individual hospitals are only supported on a branch level, with little coordinated national trade union support.
Without the backing of the unions, these groups must come together by themselves to win back the NHS. How Can We Save the NHS proposes that these groups, and the many others across the country organise a conference this autumn. With delegates from each campaign, the conference could plan “a NHS day of action each month to keep up the pressure on the government, and galvanise more widespread action and coverage […] to ensure that whoever wins the 2015 election, we have a strong united movement capable of defending the NHS against future attacks”.
The pamphlet is extremely useful in focusing on what can be done to save the NHS. It also reminds us not to be complacent: Labour winning the general election may not necessarily bring about the changes necessary to bring back the NHS we want.
The pamphlet has been written from a personal experience of the failures of the union leadership. What can happen next is for others to read it, and discuss how it relates to their own experiences. It is a very short pamphlet, and so could be taken to union branches and campaign meetings to start encouraging others to read and discuss the pamphlet and the possibility of organising a conference this autumn.