Friday, February 23, 2007

Where are the NHS saviours?

I attended a public meeting hosted by Cambridge Trades Council the other night on the crisis in the NHS. The turnout was low and it started awkwardly as the advertising had suggested the meeting started at 7.30 pm but, in fact, this was the preliminary business section so there was an odd stand off when TUC members didn't know whether to throw people out, not hold their business or what.

Bang goes another hospital wardI was pleased that the Trades Council had called the meeting and the speaker, John Lister, was, I thought, superb. However, I was rather shocked at how few had attended (a total of 27, although some of those left before things got going properly, and others arrived only as the meeting was ending so there were never that many in the room at any one time).

Personally I don't believe this was due to some massive failing on the part of the TUC (although I'm sure we can always do better) but is more to do with the fact that although people are angry at the way the NHS has been treated it's very difficult to mobilise people who think that nothing can be done.

We've lost the optimism, I suspect, of the big ideas. So in specific localities demonstrations to save a particular hospital or service can be really something, but the idea of saving the NHS in toto just seems like too much. People have seen the way the wind is blowing, don't like it, but (currently) aren't willing to come out and take part in what may look like a potentially hopeless movement.

If the Tories were in power we could bind the idea of publicly owned, properly funded public services with that of supporting Labour but, as we've seen, that isn't necessarily a recipe for success. As it is we're being given the option of which sauce we'd like to be cooked in, not whether we'd like to get out the pot altogether.

There are, of course, some within the Labour Party who've been willing to put up a fight on more than a case by case basis. As John McDonnell says "Yes, the Labour Government have pumped more money into the health budget but billions of that much-needed cash is being creamed off by the speculators and multi-nationals behind the Private Finance Initiatives and the Independent Sector Treatment Centres."

This governmental love affair with the market has led to the situation where we pay more to clean our hospitals, but they get dirtier year on year. We pay more for hospital bed space, but the ill become part of a Fordist production line mentality in and out of hospital with maximum speed and minimum recuperation, so beds end up being used for only the direst emergencies - which inevitably begin to increase.

This idea of patients as units of work is most damaging when applied to the mental health services and local cuts have already been cited in the deaths of more than one mental health patient and a massive increase in attacks on staff.

What I found odd about the meeting was the fact the groupescules all sat in blocks - so the seven Respect people all sat in the section to the chair's right, and the eight Socialist Appeal people sat together just behind me, all the normal people sat on the chair's left and I sat with two eccentrics, a fact from which we can draw no conclusion. I hope.

Oh yes, and the party members all led off on what party they were in and then making wildly optimistic speeches in a half full room. One SA guy even devoted much time and effort, after announcing his Labour Party membership, to advocating workers control for the NHS. I hadn't realised that was Labour Party policy but, you know, all credit to them. I still wasn't sure this was as useful as it could have been. Respect, of course, devoted the meat of their speeches to how we organise the next exciting demo.

When it came down to it there were only two people in the room who actually said anything from the floor about the NHS the branch sec. of Addenbrookes UNISON and the branch sec of Hinchinbrooke Hospital UNISON. From which I conclude there ween't enough straight trade union members there. It would also have been nice if the community campaigners who have been leading an excellent fight to defend various services in Cambridge had been there, but perhaps they'd been invited and declined to come.

Meetings like this are, naturally, part of the attempt to build a resistance to the attacks on the health service, but as you may be able to tell, I'm in pessimistic mood when it comes to our current ability to resist neo-liberalism in the NHS. A pessimism bolstered by the blinkered dogma of those who couldn't address why the room was half empty and attempt to lay out a strategy for broadening and deepening the layer of people who are willing to come out on a winter's night to defend public services.


AN said...

I think that the innevitable air of ennui about NHS campaigns is that people feel we ave already fought and lost on this issue.

But as you say in local areas there can be specific cmapigns that catch the imagination.

One question I have is to what degree the health service workforce is organised in your area? Unionleversl are pitifully low here in Wiltshire. And of course without some active participation froo the staff in the campaigns they are much weaker - especialy as it is the unions who are in aposition to link thewe campaigns together.

Julie said...

Hi Jim,

It may cheer you up to know that at the moment, the future of the NHS is one of the burning issues for the Scottish Elections. Us rebellious Scots have had enough of PFI,and there are several people running on hospital tickets, myself being one of them. IF you want a wee swatch at my blog its at
It may also cheer you up to know that when Tony Blair made a comment about A&E campaigners endangering health, the BBC forum received 1400 comments in just two days and had to close the post.
We're out there, don't worry!


Jim Jay said...

an: one of the side benefits of the fragmentation of the NHS (for them) has been to both demoralise union members and make it objectively more difficult to organise.

Even a hospital on one site will now have half a dozen employers or more where once it had only one or two. This makes NHS unionisation more difficult in temrs of recruitment and retention and of course effectiveness.

However there are some inspiring examples - Colchester general for instance has most workers in UNISON with stewards from (almost) every section.

There can be a factionalism among health staff (eg between cleaners and nurses) so it's particularly inspiring to see this broekn down.

My impression in Addenbrookes (Cambridge) is they have also done reasonably well in membership but activity can be patchy - and for the services that are farmed out things are looking a little weak I think. Having said that Hitchingbrooke hospital is really firing up, alas in response to potentially being closed.

It's great to hear when people are effective at organising their union or community campaign and I try to stave off my pessimism for that reason - these campaigns do work and are effective despite some of the objective problems that we face in building them.