Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The NHS needs direct action

On the 6th and 7th September, MPs will be going through the third reading of the Health and Social Care Bill. It is widely believed that the passing of this bill "will allow the back-door privatisation of the NHS." As this happens, there will be a lobby of parliament and candlelit vigils across the country. But much more needs to be done to prevent the service being gutted.

Despite some tinkering around the edges which was falsely billed as a "humiliating u-turn," the plans for the NHS remain drastic. A legal review by 38 Degrees tells the full story of what these reforms mean, particularly with regards to the government's duties and competition and procurement. There are set to be 50,000 job losses. And it looks as though private patients may be able to "leapfrog" NHS ones. This is on top of existing problems wrought by previous privatisations - such as the outsourcing of cleaning contracts giving rise to superbugs like MRSA and C-difficile.

But knowing what the problem is and being able to solve it are two different things. In response to the bill, there have been a number of demonstrations around the country. The Trades Union Congress, as the 3rd reading approaches, are calling for people who attend vigils to upload their photos so that they can form part of a giant mosaic, to put posters in their windows, and to send a letter or email to a member of the House of Lords.

The most radical action for the NHS so far has been UK Uncut's "Emergency Operation," which saw direct action against the banks which are being taxpayer-subsidised to the tune of £100bn as our health service is gutted. Not only was this an innovative way of drawing attention to the cause, but it also hit the culprits in the pocket by disrupting trading. Meanwhile, even tentative plans for the very first NHS-wide strike are over the pensions issue, rather than over the attacks we're currently seeing on the National Health Service.

Ultimately, it will only be direct action which wins this fight. Nye Bevin, the Labour Party Minister of Health when the NHS was founded, famously said "the NHS will exist as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it." He wasn't wrong. In fact, the NHS wouldn't have come to exist in the first place without a fight.

The single-most cited ‘benefit’ of so-called workers’ parties is the foundation of the welfare state in 1948. Universal healthcare and unemployed benefits certainly represent gains for the working class insofar as they are paid for by the bosses. But why were they introduced? The foundations for the welfare state were laid by the 1942 cross-party Beveridge Report, which recommended the measures implemented by Clement Attlee’s Labour government when they came to power in 1945. Beveridge himself was a rather unsavoury character, who had supported benefits so long as the “unemployable” were sterilised and stripped of civil rights, but it is the motives behind the adoption of the report’s proposals which are most revealing.
Wary of the worldwide revolutionary wave which followed the end of the First World War, there was a cross-party consensus that war-weary workers would need to be given incentives not to turn their discontent (or even their guns) on the government. The Tory Quintin Hogg summed up the prevailing mood in 1943 when he said “we must give them reform or they will give us revolution.” The welfare state fitted that bill, and the wave of post-war mass squatting of disused military bases by homeless workers convinced the ruling class of the reality of the threat.
As we saw over student fees and EMA, simply lobbying the government in the hope that they come around will not be sufficient. There needs to be direct action resistance - and since we know it is feasible strike action should be at the centre of that.

But that's not all. Economic blockades targeting private providers and/or occupations of the banks benefiting from the money the health service is losing would further emphasise the struggle. If it were possible to coordinate this with protests across the country - perhaps even other public sector strike action - then the momentum would become almost undeniable. Especially if strike action was rolling or indefinite, rather than of the "one-day" variety.

There has been a lot of hard work done by people raising awareness of the attacks on the NHS and researching the proposals. But now the point has to be to fight. We wouldn't have gotten the NHS "without the tangible threat of working class unrest" in the first place, and we certainly won't be able to preserve it without more of the same.