2,000 campaigners rally against Health Bill

It was the final few minutes of the eleventh hour, but the TUC finally gave us a flavour of what a real fight to defend the NHS could have looked like on March 7, when over 2,000 NHS staff and campaigners filled Westminster Central Hall for a vigorous rally writes Terry Smith.

It came just a day or so after coalition ministers stitched up a dirty backstairs deal to race Andrew Lansley’s Health & Social Care Bill through the final stages in the Lords without allowing MPs to vote again, and while still keeping the now notorious “risk register” secret from MPs and peers – and three days before the LibDem Spring conference offers the final possible glimmer of hope of stopping the Bill reaching the statute book.

The Bill has been grinding through, against increasingly broad and vocal opposition from doctors, nurses, health professionals, health unions, and now also the general public, many of whom will have first noticed anything was happening when veteran campaigner June Hautot noisily ambushed Andrew Lansley in front of TV cameras a couple of weeks ago.

It was forced to delay for a tokenistic “pause” and “listening exercise” last spring by the 2011 LibDem conference, but although hundreds of amendments have now been incorporated, the Bill remains as it began – a root and branch demolition of the NHS as a publicly accountable and publicly delivered health service, offering comprehensive care to all.

The last minute face-saving stitch-up between Tory leaders and Shirley Williams, who had emerged as the improbable standard-bearer of opposition in the Lords, came as opinion was hardening against the Bill in the medical profession.

It aimed to head off any further opposition, allowing Williams and the despicable Nick Clegg to issue a letter to MPs and peers claiming than enough amendments had been passed, and avoid a damaging split in the coalition. It led to laughable scenes in the Lords, where LibDems voted against their own amendments to speed the unpopular Tory Bill on its way to the Royal Assent much earlier than planned.

If the LibDems on the weekend defy this pressure, and vote for an emergency motion calling for the Bill to be dropped, it would mandate their MPs to vote against it in the debate, which shadow health secretary Andy Burnham now says Labour will call in Opposition parliamentary time on Tuesday, offering MPs a “final chance” to reject the bill.

Burnham’s speech at the rally came after a succession of union leaders, clinicians, managers and campaigners had spoken and denounced the Health Bill, none of them addressing the fact that no promised ‘mass campaign’ against the Bill has been mounted by the official labour movement, 15 months after the Bill came to Parliament.

Burnham did admit it was possible the Bill would pass, saying: “If I’m health secretary after election I’ll put the ‘N’ back in the NHS. I will repeal this bill.”

The TUC-organised event was one of the largest displays of public anger about the health service in recent decades. It was originally intended to hear only NHS employees and their representatives, until union general secretaries demanded their slot on the platform, despite the fact that the health unions nationally have remained single-mindedly focused on the pensions issue and done little to fight the Bill.

The union bosses wheeled out good old-school tub thumping speeches to loud applause, but said little about what would happen next or how the Bill could be combatted. They included BMA chairman Hamish Meldrum, (who earlier in the day tried unsuccessfully to prevent a motion of no confidence in Andrew Lansley being passed by the BMA’s consultants’ committee), UNISON’s Dave Prentis, Unite’s Len McCluskey, and even Peter Carter, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, who predicted that: “If this bill gets royal assent, within four years there will be another reorganisation.”

There were rank and file union speakers, and patients, including Vikki Mills, pregnant with twins, who challenged Lansley’s complaint that critics of the bill oppose it because they “don’t understand it”. “I’m against this bill because I do understand it,” she said, to loud applause.

Former Health Secretary Lord Owen contrasted the mandate for the current reforms with that for the creation of the NHS in 1948. “Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan had an overwhelming mandate to introduce that legislation: can anyone say that David Cameron and Nick Clegg have an overwhelming mandate for the bill?

Other speakers included comedian Jo Brand, campaigner John Lister, and Professor John Ashton, the regional medical officer for the North West who was recently disciplined by his employer NHS Cumbria for making political comments. He said the generation of people who fought in World War Two and had founded the NHS “don’t expect to see it becoming asset stripped by carpet baggers… who know the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

As tired campaigners filtered out of the hall, many were buoyed up by the event, but also deeply frustrated. “We needed this type of event months ago. It’s too late. And nobody said what we should do now,” was the common complaint.

Inaction by the Labour movement and shockingly poor media coverage, especially by the BBC, that has left the public largely unaware of the threat to the NHS until the last few weeks, has left the decisive vote in the hands of the least reliable opponents: the LibDems.

With opinion polls showing 70% now opposed to the Bill, will the shaky hands of conference delegates put the coalition at risk by voting to defend the NHS? Who would want to gamble on them doing so?

Of course if they don’t it will be the LibDem-Lansley Bill that will rightly be blamed for the crisis it will unleash across the NHS between now and the next election.

If you have not yet done so, sign the e-petition, now at 171,000 and more, at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/22670

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