Rob Owen reflects on the largest demonstration for the NHS in recent memory.
Photos and videos by Steve Eason.
Yesterday’s NHS demo lifted people. With estimates of up to a quarter of a million taking part it was certainly large, lively and vibrant. The march had the breadth typical of NHS protests, spanning generations and the political spectrum. It also had a feel of a politicised labour movement on the march. Alongside myriad health campaigns were coaches organised and filled by local Labour Party organisations, often crossing over with the reasonably sized union blocks. The demonstration had Labour banners and union flags scattered along its length.
There were large delegations from hospitals from nearly all of the UK with what seemed like particularly well organised delegations of non-qualified staff (cleaners, porters, health care assistants) alongside qualified healthcare professionals. Most people arrived in groups organised around workplace, union or Labour affiliation rather than coming as individuals or friendship groups.
Health workers at breaking point
Suzie, a newly qualified nurse said:
I attended the demonstration against privatisation and cuts to the NHS yesterday for many reasons. Firstly, as a nurse myself I want enough money to be put into the NHS that wards are fully staffed. Being newly qualified is hard enough without your ward running on half the required staffing. It’s down to the amazing team I work with that quality care is given but it doesn’t mean that we should have to put up with it. Secondly, what do we have without our health? Something we take completely for granted until it’s gone. My cousin is currently having chemotherapy for breast cancer. This is an obviously awful time. However the NHS has given her exceptional care, free at the point of delivery. I believe everyone in the UK should have the support of a national health service when you receive devastating news such as this. Finally health care is a human right. People’s lives and wellbeing are not something that profit should be made from. We, as healthcare professionals are already running on empty. Further cuts are not feasible or sustainable. Yesterday’s demonstration showed me how many people are still willing to fight for our NHS. Not only British people but our colleagues from all around the world. It was empowering and moving. We’re so lucky to have the NHS, something that was fought so hard to create. We need to fight even harder now to save it.
Annabel who works as a nurse at a South London hospital added:
I attended the demo yesterday because I am physically and mentally exhausted.
I work at a major trauma hospital and we are all at breaking point. The team I work with are going without breaks on a daily basis while working 13 hour shifts so that our patients receive the care they do. I am constantly apologising for the delay in pain relief, antibiotics and helping them to the bathroom due to the sheer lack of staff on the ward at the moment. It’s not safe and it’s definitely not fair.
Worryingly, as the cuts continue the patients put off attending A&E because they don’t want to ‘add to the pressures’. We have two patients on the ward who have been fit for discharge since November and due to the lack of social care beds, they are living in an acute surgical ward. Both have dementia and both have been failed by the system. The NHS can work and will work as long as the cuts stop and the funding is adequate. NHS workers should not have to work hours and hours of overtime for free. No other profession would accept it and why should we?
The team I work with are incredible but we are at breaking point. Yesterday’s demo showed me how much passion and love so many have for the NHS. We will continue to fight for the rights of our patients.
Beginnings of a movement
The demonstration represented a potential and growing network of local collectives with a social weight in excess of its formal size. The Health Campaigns together alliance, which called the demonstration alongside the People’s Assembly, managed to catch a moment where it seemed possible to overcome the fragmented nature of campaigns against NHS cuts, often having a tinge of parochialism when fighting closures in isolation from one another, and to create a national movement in defence of the NHS.
The possibility of a mass national campaign for the NHS must be in large part to do with the slow burn effect of Corbynism. His speech at the demo demonstrated how his skill as an orator has improved. His speech, like that of John McDonnell, was powerful and principled – setting out the need for a universalist and free NHS. His unambiguous support for the most wide reaching demands gave the day a political sharpness it would have been near impossible to achieve in other circumstances. It also wrote large the potential of Corbynism to further reshape British politics.
Labour – boxing in Corbyn
A Labour party worth its salt would be broadcasting his speech on every platform and trying to fill the media with voices amplifying the demands of the demonstration. Any idea that this failure lies with Corbyn himself would be blown apart by anyone attending yesterday’s rally. However it seems likely his message will again be frustrated at every turn by a party apparatus, and parliamentary group, determined to disorganise and seek a path accommodating to the limits of austerity and “responsible government.” It was notable that the motivators of the renewed soft left challenge finding expression in Owen Jones’ media profile had no visibility on the protest. Here instead was proof that Corbyn’s leadership could relate to and express the aspirations of numbers broad and politicised enough to help win the next general election.
The contrast between a Labour machine out to frustrate the politics Corbyn represents and the thousands who organised to bring friends and colleagues onto the streets was painfully evident. Here was an opportunity for the radical left to argue that the demonstration could take the fight for its demands in to constituencies, to reach out to make the NHS one of the central ideas of the upcoming general election. What the Labour party structures will not do, a grassroots movement, organised without party affiliation could.
The impasse Corbyn has hit can only be broken by forces outside of Labour uniting with members on key issues to organise, locality by locality, to force the political debate to the left and push up the left vote.
The seeds of possibility
In areas where we can revolutionaries have been part of sustaining such campaigns alongside Labour party members and unaffiliated activists. rs21 is too small to make a substantive difference but the numbers represented by yesterday’s demonstration could provide the forces needed to transform the debate ahead of the next general election. Here, rs21 member Gill George addresses the demonstration on behalf of Shropshire Defend Our NHS