Huge demo boosts fightback
After the ‘biggest ever’ pro-NHS event, writes Peter Manson, what we need now is winning politics
The huge March 4 demonstration to defend the national health service undoubtedly came as a big boost to both the vast majority of workers who depend on the NHS and those who are employed within it.
In my opinion the organisers, Health Campaigns Together, were almost certainly correct when they described the event as the “biggest ever march to defend the NHS”1 - a sentiment echoed by one of the main participating groups, the People’s Assembly, which called it the “biggest NHS demo in history”.2
Exactly how big was, as usual, subject to a variety of estimations, ranging from 100,000 (Socialist Party in England and Wales) to 250,000 from most of the rest of the left, as well as many mainstream commentators. Against a background of almost daily reports of NHS funding shortfalls, cancelled operations, proposals to introduce charging to see a GP, etc, etc, here is a subject on which the Tories clearly feel vulnerable. Hence the size and militancy of this demonstration matters. And, of course, for every trade unionist, medical student, doctor, patient and local activist who turned out, there are dozens who share their anger and frustration at the continued undermining of the NHS.
Philip Hammond’s budget came four days later on March 8 - and he made a number of concessions to the views of those millions of workers, So we were told that there would be an additional £325 million for the government’s so-called ‘sustainability and transformation plans’ (STPs) and a further £100 million for A&E departments. On top of that there will be £2 billion over three years for councils to spend on social care, meaning that doctors will get some small relief when it comes to the ‘bed-blocking’ of elderly patients. However, as the British Medical Association warned, the promised funding of STPs fell well short of what is needed. The BMA’s Dr Mark Porter said that the plans required £9.5 billion if they were to be successfully delivered. So the NHS will be continued to be starved of the funds that are needed and the Tories will continue with their privatisation by stealth.
Both Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were among the dozens of speakers on the Parliament Square platform. In line with his current practice Corbyn said nothing that might raise critical eyebrows among the Parliamentary Labour Party right wing, confining himself to pro-NHS statements with which none of them would disagree. The health service is “in crisis because of underfunding”, he said, stating the obvious. What is more, “The money is there.” So all we have to do is “collect taxes properly to fund it”.
For his part, McDonnell sounded more militant: “We will not stand by when they seek to destroy our NHS. We will take them on.” And apparently this confrontation will take place “on the streets”. For a moment it almost seemed as though he was about to advocate the taking up of arms, but instead he asked rhetorically: “Why?” and answered: “Because they’re our streets.” But at least that gave the chairs an opportunity to vary the chants between speeches: instead of calling out, “Whose NHS?” - to which the assembled thousands responded “Our NHS!” - they shouted, “Whose streets?”
It is true that Corbyn’s speech in particular was less than inspiring, but he still received the overwhelming and enthusiastic support that we have come to expect from such working class and labour-movement audiences. No doubt the PLP right will have noted that - but, of course, it is relying on the mass of largely non-political voters to follow the lead of the bourgeois media and echo its criticisms. Even if they decline to give Labour their votes, come the general election, resulting in the loss of many of those MPs’ seats, well, at least that will provoke Corbyn’s downfall and enable Labour to launch a comeback, following a return to ‘sensible’ policies - ie, those only marginally to the left of the Conservatives’. Of course, a campaign run by Labour-owned media outlets in favour of pro-worker policies is a totally alien idea for such people.
It goes without saying that Corbyn-style pro-NHS sentiments were forthcoming from all the platform speakers, including trade union leaders - Len McCluskey of Unite, Dave Ward from the Communication Workers Union and - in a welcome first speech following his heart transplant - Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services union.
Unite, along with Unison and the GMB in particular, had mobilised their members for the demonstration (although the extent of that mobilisation was uneven, often depending on the militancy and political views of local officials). But it seemed to this writer that the majority of demonstrators were trade unionists, and it was this that accounted for its militancy.
However, while there exists a strong desire for radical change, there is no clear lead coming from above - exemplified, at the present, by the current unwillingness of Corbyn to go beyond standard 1945-type platitudes. And that, surely, is the problem - even in relation to immediate demands concerning the NHS. Unless they are viewed as part of an overall package aimed at challenging the rule of capital, at the very least on a European scale, it hard to see how those demands will become a reality. The capitalist class is in no mood to grant substantive concessions under present circumstances and - unlike in 1945 - the working class has not just experienced a prolonged and bitter world war.