While the Tory Party was preparing to open its 2013 party conference on Sunday with a tribute to Margaret Thatcher – a 10-minute video which received a standing ovation and left many with a tear in their eye – tens of thousands of protestors made their way through streets of Manchester to censure the government’s privatisation plans and their impact on jobs and the quality of health care on a march to #SaveOurNHS.
The 50,000 strong rally made its way to the city centre from all corners, trudging past the fenced-off Manchester Central conference centre where the Conservative Party gathered, booing and jeering as they went. (Still, 50,000 seems trifling when you consider George Osborne’s record for the total number of people booing him at one time remains at 80,000 during the Paralympics)
This heavily guarded fortification, known as the ‘Island Site’ for the next week, will allow nothing in or out without being thoroughly checked. Operation Protector – the Greater Manchester Police’s operation to guard the conference – will see 1,400 police officers on the streets, two kilometres of fencing and 1036 tonnes of concrete and steel barriers used, as well as a record 360 extra CCTV feeds. The full cost isn’t yet available.
Despite the Alcatraz-style prep, only two arrests were made. Everyone else peacefully blew whistles and waved flags and banners displaying their love of the NHS and animosity towards austerity, trident, the so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’ and countless other government policies.
The three-mile demonstration called by the trade unions’ umbrella group the Trade Union Congress was mainly to highlight the impact of job losses and spending cuts across the health service, as well as the rapid sell-off of the most profitable parts of the NHS to private healthcare companies, like Circle – the company chosen to run the first franchised NHS trust – whose major shareholders are Conservative Party donors
In a similar vein, in June of this year Edwin Poots of the DUP went against the advice of his most senior civil servant and ordered that two proposed health centres should be developed by the private sector. Unfortunately Northern Ireland doesn’t have the luxury afforded to the rest of the UK of knowing where party donations come from. The DUP remains one of the main opponents to a change in this law.
A lot of people on the march were talking about the victories won at Lewisham Hospital and the example that was set for other hospitals – and campaigns – to follow. However, it’s difficult to find similar stories.
November 2011 saw the closure of Belfast City Hospital A&E, increasing the waiting times at the Royal Hospital and others. This was followed by the news in March of last year of the death of an elderly man at the Royal due to the hospital service being ‘pushed to its limits.’ Instead of being checked every 30 minutes as was procedure, and with no available beds, he was “>left on a trolley for 22 hours.
At the end of the march protesters converged for a mass rally. Len McCluskey, the General Secretary of Unite the Union, said of the health service:
We created it, we use it and it’s our NHS. The Tories and the ruling elite simply don’t get it. Let me try to help them. You see, Mr. Cameron, it’s in the name: ‘National Health Service’.
‘National,’ the great collective working for the greater good of each other. And each part of the nation played its part over the years.
‘Health’ – health for the people, provided by the people.
And ‘Service.’ It’s a service, Prime Minister. A not-for-profit service, carried out by committed people who live and work in our communities. They are the ones that understand the values of the British people far better than the politicians.
On the merits of the welfare state, ‘the bravest, most humane vision a nation could have for itself’, he said:
We’re not going to allow a bunch of greedy bastards from public school to take that away from us. When Cameron and Clegg talk about reorganisation and reform, we know that they mean fragmentation and privatisation. They don’t value that health of ordinary people, they only know how to put a price on it.
This is why we must make sure that the NHS is on the top of the political agenda at the general election, and that the next Labour government doesn’t betray us like the last one, who were seduced by market forces.
Many are hoping Labour can reverse the tide at the next general election, while still cautious due the disappointments that came with the last Labour government. A letter signed by leading party activists, trade unionists and health workers made the plea in the Guardian earlier this month read: (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/sep/20/nhs-back-on-track):
If the party leadership is serious about saving the NHS from the coalition’s assault, it needs to make firm commitments on issues like outsourcing and privatisation of services, the use of markets, the private finance initiative debts, minimum staffing levels and reversing cuts. It needs to restore the secretary of state’s duty to provide a comprehensive service, as Ed Miliband has promised, but go beyond that to rebuild a publicly owned, publicly funded and publicly run NHS, providing for need – not a logo covering a marketplace of profit-making private companies. The Labour party should show it is serious about saving the NHS by taking a clear stand.
Andy Burnham, Labour’s health spokesman and Shadow Health Secretary, was on-hand at the rally yesterday to give Labour’s response. His message to Cameron was clear: “You have never been given permission to put the NHS up for sale.”
To great cheers he committed Labour to reversing Tory health policy:
In the Queen’s Speech of the new Labour (not to be confused with ‘New Labour’, presumably) government we will repeal the Health and Social Care Act. We will restore the N in the NHS and have Labour where it should always be, for integration over fragmentation and passion over competition. For people over profit.
NHS: ‘NATIONAL TREASURE’
An ambulance driver from the Greater Manchester area, Ray Carrick of GMB – Britain’s General Union – was puzzled by what he seen as the beginnings of the NHS impersonating the American health system:
Government of all colours have constantly crossed the Atlantic to take advice form the NHS. Now this Conservative government go to America to seek advice. To do that is like going to the Mafia and asking for advice on crime prevention.
The NHS is world-renowned for the service it provides and is one of the most cost-effective health services in the world. A 2011 Commonwealth Fund study found the NHS was among the best health services in the world in terms of care and value.
Through the NHS patients have among the fastest access to GPs, and suffer from among the fewest medical errors. Of those countries surveyed, the US healthcare system was among the worst. One thing America is good at is, however, making billionaires out of a few individuals in the medical profession.
Owen Jones – the ‘Justin Bieber of the British left’ according to Blairite Telegraph Blogger Dan Hodges – said ‘the Tories didn’t even have the decency to put the privatisation of the NHS to the British people.’
After all, in his election pledges, David Cameron promised to ‘cut the deficit, not the NHS.’
These people don’t run the NHS in the interest of patients nor in the interest of our communities. Their interest is that of private profiteers looking for a quick buck at the expense of us, the tax payer.
Tony Anderson, a physiotherapist, talked about what privatisation would mean for his profession:
I fear that physiotherapists like myself are going to find it harder and harder to deliver those services as the focus becomes more on budgets and profits as opposed to people. My work colleagues have all had a pay freeze that in real time amounts to a 5 year pay cut. What I fear is that the NHS is going to be further fragmented. What I want to see is a universal, free, publically delivered service that it was founded to be.
MOVING ON: EDUCATION
Christine Blower of the National Union of Teachers broadened the discussion:
If Michael Gove gets his way we can see the prospect of schools run for profit. It isn’t right, it isn’t acceptable and we have to stop it happening. Michael Gove is the only Secretary of Education who has ever had a vote of no confidence with the National Union of Teachers.
Continuing with education she said:
We have the most over-tested children pretty much anywhere in the world and we have a curriculum that’s a cross between a pub quiz and a grammar school of the 1950s. It’s not what our children deserve.
Leona O’Neill’s article in the Irish News on 24 September on the Transfer Test suggests many Northern Irish families share a similar sentiment with education there. She said:
Unfortunately the Transfer Test is set up to recognise only a certain type of intelligence – prowess in maths and English. Anything else beyond that does not matter a damn. […]Last week I looked at my boy, yawning over his transfer test practice papers at 10pm hoping that this one will get him a good grade from his teacher. And I saw him come out of school; his shoulders slumped with the paper in his hand, another not so great grade circled on the front. It broke my heart to see him disappointed again.