1500 people thronged into Central Hall Westminster last night for a Labour Party rally to defend the NHS, writes Terry Conway. An enthusiastic audience, warmed up by the NHS choir, then heard from Shadow Heath spokesperson Jon Ashworth in fighting form. Ashworth not only reminded the receptive crowd of the disasters that the Tories are wreaking on the health service – including the loss of 15,000 beds – but was precise about why Labour would make a difference; ending PFI and making in house services the preferred provider in all cases, scrapping Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act, freezing the STP’s and making a significant and massively needed cash injection into our NHS – over 30 billion during a parliament. To loud applause, he noted the irreplaceable contribution made to services by workers from abroad and pledged to fight tooth and nail for their right to continue to provide this support.
Ashworth was followed by a series of workers in the NHS; a psychiatrist, a paramedic, and a nurse whose testimonies, combined with those of other workers in the video on the NHS illustrated the contradictions facing health workers in Tory Britain. They are all desperately committed to the service they seek to provide – but at the same time hugely frustrated at the way government policies undermine their ability to do so – and spoke personally about the effect this has on their mental health. As one of them said it is not that the NHS is falling, it is that it is being failed by the Tories.
The evening concluded with a barnstorming speech from Corbyn, who talked about the NHS as “socialism in action” while backing up the arguments made by previous contributors – his disbelief when May had said that the NHS was better prepared than ever for the winter crisis, the fact that the Tories had opposed the introduction of the NHS from the start and why Nye Bevan had been so committed to making it happen.
After describing the current dire situation, he argued: “the government must bring forward an emergency budget for the NHS to give it the money it needs and end this crisis.The Tories are failing our NHS. Labour built the NHS 70 years ago and it will be the next Labour government that secures our NHS for the next 70 years.”
He spoke of his appreciation of the dedication of staff – talking particularly about the plight of a care worker he met because he was looking after a friend. This man was often working a 14 hour day because he regularly walked between appointments because he couldn’t afford any other means of getting there – but as travel time was unpaid this lengthened his day. What did so even more was that he often went back to see clients in his own time, so convinced he was that the paltry time slots allocated to each didn’t allow him to provide the care their situations necessitated.
A great evening could have been even better if a few things had been different. While those providing health – and social care – in the community- were mentioned by almost all the speakers, one aspect of the NHS crisis was missing; the perilous situation of many, if not all, GP practices. The difficulty of getting timely appointments as well as the pressure on both staff and patients in overstretched surgeries is both a disaster in itself but also has a knock on effect on the rest of the NHS. Some people end up going to hospital with conditions which should, under normal circumstances, be dealt with by general practice. On the other hand, other people’s conditions are not picked up by GP’s in rushed consultations and delayed diagnoses can lead to greater problems. Secondly, the video, which came over extremely well on the large screen, showed the diversity of NHS staff well, but the platform did not which was a weakness.
But my third frustration was I think the one that would have been very easy for the organisers to address. Jeremy Corbyn has been very clear that the Labour Party he is working to fashion is not just a party which operates at the level of parliament, but one that is part and parcel of the struggles that its supporters are involved in, in their workplaces and their communities, to create a better world. He rightly asserts that Labour needs to be a social movement.
Health Campaigns Together, the national campaign to defend the NHS, together with the People’s Assembly, have rightly called an emergency demonstration for February 3. Up and down the country, CLPs, together with trade union branches and health campaigners are organising to bring people to London – and/or to organise local events. Leaflets for the event were given out as people arrived and as they left. And the demands, the slogans of the protest are ones supported by Labour – including in the speeches from this platform. But it wasn’t mentioned from the platform This was a missed opportunity – both in terms of building February 3 and in terms of building Labour as a social movement. The response needs to be to step up still further our determination that the march on Feb 3 should be bigger still – and crowded with Labour party banners