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50,000 march on the Tories

Dave Stockton writes, according to Greater Manchester Police a column of some 50,000 demonstrators threaded its way through the streets of the city centre in a route which passed within view of the Tory Conference venue. Placards, banners, chants expressed not only the defence of the health service but hatred of the Tories and all they stand for.

The TUC march left from Liverpool Road, to join up with two feeder marches to end in a rally in Whitworth Park out beyond the University and opposite Manchester General Infirmary. Here a platform of general secretaries – the TUC’s Frances O’Grady, Unison’s Dave Prentis, Unite’s Len McCluskey, the PCS’s Mark Serwotka – addressed the crowds. Labour’s shadow health secretary Andy Burnham popular within the Party (but under threat of a reshuffle it is rumoured) plus rising star of the Labour left, Owen Jones, were also warmly received.

The demonstration took place against a background where fire fighters, teachers, postal staff, and other public-sector workers are balloting or preparing to strike in defence of their jobs, pensions and the vital services they provide. Naturally Unison, the largest health service union, had the biggest contingent though this was run a very close second by the red flags of Unite.

The march came in response to a call by the TUC to protest against the attack on the NHS by the Conservatives and their junior partners the Lib-Dems. Both these parties have shamelessly broken their election pledges that the NHS was safe in their hands.

But this behaviour would come as little surprise to those who marched on Sunday. What might have been a surprise –if you thought about it – was that this was the first national demonstration on the NHS in over three years. If the TUC cannot mobilise on a national scale to defend the nation’s most beloved institution bar none what, it might be thought, will you defend?

Even this demo, three and a half years into the Tories’ demolition job, was foisted on the TUC leaders by hundreds upon hundreds of individual union branch and conference resolutions. Originally called by the SWP’s Unite the Resistance, the reins were passed onto the more substantial, though more right wing People’s Assembly, who then gave the TUC seemingly full control of the event.

While it is good that these organisations sought to involve the official leaders, surely they could have demanded the full range of Tory attacks were on the agenda and more speakers from the struggles, like the triumphant Hovis workers, who were there fresh from smashing zero hours contracts and agency working by strike action.

By contrast, the TUC leaders and those of individual national unions just sat back and watched as the ConDem coalition whittled away at the NHS funding, let the privateer weevils burrow ever deeper into it, allowed the trusts to weaken ever further its overall planned character and run ever deeper into debt in the great PFI scandal, then closing down accident and emergency departments to save costs.

Fortunately grassroots activists have not sat back and waited. In local hospitals and other workplaces, in union branches and communities, they sprang into action, winning temporary reprieves for services, such as at Lewisham hospital, where in January 25,000 demonstrated and eventually forced a judicial revue and a halt to the wreckers. Understandably a Lewisham campaigner was warmly applauded at the final rally.

The “Support Stafford Hospital” campaign is another inspiring example. They had mobilised 20,000 people the very day before the Manchester demo. This was on top of a huge march of 50,000 in April. Local campaign groups against the bedroom tax were also in evidence as were youth and students groups likely the recently formed Revolutionary Socialists from Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and elsewhere.

In Whitworth Park – in a continuation of Labour’s modest but noticeable post-conference left turn – Andy Burnham raised loud applause when he said that a Labour government would repeal Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act in its first year of government.

“If we carry on down this path, market forces will eventually devour everything precious about the NHS,” he said referring to figures just released by Labour showing that NHS England has seen £4.5 billion of outsourcing in the last year alone and that George Eliot Hospital in Nuneaton could soon join Cambridgeshire’s Hinchingbrooke in passing into private hands.

What a shame that he did not go on to say what he has recently admitted to the Guardian: that the last Labour government had been wrong to promote the market in the NHS, and that social care – a huge and growing, though largely private sector of healthcare – should be brought into the NHS (let alone added, as he should have, the need to cancel the PFI schemes with no compensation, and to reverse all the cuts). If this is why his position is threatened by a reshuffle, then it is a good indication of how limited Ed Miliband’s attempt to turn the party to the left is.

Frances O’Grady said, “Our NHS is not for sale, not today, not tomorrow, not ever.” Fine words but she did not say a word about the resolutions at the TUC congress, which promised a midweek day of action and co-ordinated strikes.

The most powerful point in her speech was when she referred to the fact that her mother – an immigrant from Ireland – came to perform a lifetime’s service in the NHS and how much such immigrants contribute to maintaining its high standards, immigrants the Tories stigmatise.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said:

“Make no mistake, privatisation will suck money out of the NHS. It will suck money out of patient care. It will cut wages. It will cut corners. Patients will suffer.” When the profits weren’t enough, he warned, the spectre of charges would appear.

Unite union leader Len McCluskey warned, “I say to private healthcare, you had better not get too comfortable – for this is our NHS and we will take it back.”

There were no calls to action on a national scale from the general secretaries – just praise for those at local level for their inspiring struggles. Clearly they are now steering the unions towards Labour in preparation for a general election (a full 20 months away!), with propaganda and protest for sure, but no definitive turn to action beyond the sectional struggles.

Nevertheless these struggles and the trend to greater political polarisation between Labour and the Tories do create conditions where greater pressure from below, greater coordination from below can produce results. With strikes looming – indeed taking place in Post Offices today, Monday and at schools tomorrow in the North East, Eastern region and elsewhere, co-ordinated by the NUT and Nasuwt – there is every opportunity to turn this into a “hot Autumn”. Though that will be the task of the rank and file, who were in full voice in Manchester on Sunday.

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