On 16 August, a march to highlight the privatisation of the NHS set off from Jarrow, northeast England, to follow roughly the route of the original Jarrow hunger march of 1936, and to arrive outside the British parliament in London on 6 September.
The march was the idea of a group of mothers from Darlington (the ‘Darlo-mums’ as they called themselves), and they formed the core of what was basically a series of 22 local marches, with a fair few rallies and meetings thrown in.
Various local NHS support groups, but mainly Keep Our NHS Public (KONP) along the way organised these meetings and rallies, along with sorting out accommodation and food – a very difficult task as overall direction at that time seemed to be lacking and no one ever knew how many people would be on each leg or require a bed (often a mattress on a floor).
These problems, however, were overcome with patience, goodwill and a fair amount of cash donated by local trade-union branches. There was a problem that proved much harder to solve, however, which was that the majority of the original organising group had decided that they did not want ‘party politics’ involved, and some even took this as far as shunning anything that could be deemed ‘political!’
In Wakefield, the eighth stop-off point from Jarrow, the local KONP group has a good number of CPGB-ML members within its ranks, who had done much of the preparatory work for the march, and who had organised a rally within the city in spite of a less-than-helpful Labour council.
Mary Creagh, the local Labour MP, let it be known that she wanted to address the rally, but Wakefield KONP decided that she could welcome marchers at Pinderfields (Wakefield’s last hospital), and that the rally in the city centre would be addressed by a representative of the local Unison branch who had given a lot of help, and by Comrade Zane Carpenter, the General Secretary of the CPGB-ML, who also works on the local KONP committee.
When the marchers came into Wakefield, they were met at the top gate of Pinderfields hospital by a small group, including the KONP guide. Mary Creagh, MP was allowed to address the marchers for five minutes while they had a short break. The chief executive of the Mid-Yorkshire Hospitals Trust had refused permission for the march to go through the hospital grounds, but, as Mary disappeared (perhaps she was daunted by the thought of the 30 minutes walk into the city centre), the march was led by the guide through the hospital grounds anyway – to the obvious delight of both staff and patients, who waved and cheered the marchers.
Once the demo arrived at the site of the rally, Mary turned up again with a small bodyguard of Labour women. A member of KONP welcomed the marchers and introduced the Unison speaker, who spoke of the hardships of working in the NHS and of the tragedy of PFI, which had seen Pinderfields hospital knocked down and rebuilt as a smaller place (but much more lucrative for private enterprise).
Comrade Zane then spoke, pointing out that the NHS had only come into being as a result of the high regard that the Soviet Union was held in by British workers after the second world war. He explained that the NHS had been part of a bribe to keep the working class of Britain away from revolution. This bribe had had the full support of Labour, the Liberals and the Conservatives at the time, but, since the demise of the Soviet Union and the decline in the threat of revolution at home, these parties had all been responsible for trying to dismantle the NHS and other parts of the ‘welfare state’.
Zane said that if people wanted to save the NHS they would have to fight for it; it would certainly not be saved as a result of voting for either of the coalition parties or for the Labour party. At this point, Mary’s minders were dementedly screaming “Lies!” and “Off! Off! Off!” Our comrade pointed out that the PFI trick referred to by the previous speaker had been thrust upon the NHS by the Labour party when it was in power, just as the PFI scams in education and other public services had been implemented by Labour.
After pointing out that the behaviour of the Labour members/supporters was the height of sectarianism, Zane handed the microphone to one of the marchers and received some applause. The marcher who had the microphone tried to explain that they had agreed to ‘no politics’ on their march when two of Mary’s previously screaming helpers stepped forward, snatched the microphone out of the woman’s hand and presented it to their mistress.
It was at this point that the PA system’s battery ran out and so Mary had to deliver her Party Political Broadcast on behalf of the Labour party through an old-fashioned and not-very-powerful bull-horn, while some in the audience jeered at the marchers asking “Is this your idea of no party politics then?”
Tellingly, three of the marchers approached our party comrades to apologise for the Labour supporters’ behaviour after the rally broke up.
The next morning, as the marchers were taken for their breakfast, they were all given a copy of our party’s ‘Save the NHS from capitalist greed’ leaflet to read while they ate, which many happily did.
The next stop on the march was Barnsley, where the Labour party totally took over the rally and all press coverage and photo opportunities from the local media. The BBC, meanwhile, ignored the march from start to finish.
As it wound its way down to London, the march became more and more an instrument of the Labour party, which dominated proceedings everywhere and used them to claim that Labour would look after the NHS if we would just elect them back into office. The culmination was a big rally in Trafalgar Square, where the latest ‘left Labour’ flavour of the month, Owen Jones, pushed out the same vote-Labour garbage.
Once again, CPGB-ML members were the only dissident voice, and our leaflets and papers pointing out the need to organise for revolution were in stark contrast to the Trotskyists’ and revisionists’ calls for an end to the current coalition government and a vote for Labour to ‘save’ the NHS.
It turned out that the original marchers had made a classic mistake – if they really didn’t want to be an electoral appendage of the Labour party – by trying to be ‘non-political’.
The NHS and the attacks on it are part and parcel of the political landscape in Britain, and this reality has to be seen, understood and fought against. We cannot simply ignore the imperialist, anti-working class nature of the Labour party and its apologists in the name of ‘unity to save the NHS!’
Labour are a major part of the problem, and hiding and/or ignoring their role as a willing servant of a ruling class that is intent upon the destruction of the NHS and other services, kills any chance of building a real resistance movement before we even start. Even the so-called non-party-political stance that was taken by the Darlo-mums was weighted in favour of one bourgeois political party and against one/two others, as can be seen from their Facebook page:
“On route we aim to make the public aware of what the coalition government has been doing to our NHS and what has been happening to our hospitals and health services.
“It’s really hard to passively watch the rapid dismantling, privatisation and destruction of the NHS. First we had the Health & Social Care Act, then Section 75 and more recently Clause 119 of the Care Bill. The government have legislated to open the NHS to the open market. We believe every penny saved in the NHS should go back into improving and developing our NHS.
“We don’t want to see private companies operating in the NHS under the heading of ‘efficiency’ when we know they are accountable to their share holders, who are only interested in maximum profit before patient health care.”
This focuses purely on the current coalition government and the measures it has introduced in the last four years, but does anyone really believe that the attacks on the NHS only started with the election of the ConDems in 2010?
With such a premise, the ‘defenders’ of the NHS can’t even mention the Thatcher/Major years and the attacks that took place then, because to get back there we have also to take into account the 15 years of ferocious undermining and destruction of the health service under Blair and Brown. These Labour years saw not only a continuation of the previous governments’ dismantling and opening-up of the NHS coffers to the privateers, but also a huge acceleration of the process.
This dangerous amnesia is flowing through all the NHS support groups like a disease at the moment, and large parts of KONP, along with other groups such as 38 Degrees, are being infected. The 38 Degrees group has written on its website that “What Labour say now matters. With a general election less than a year away, Labour could soon be in charge and in a position to help or harm the NHS. And even if they’re not, we are way more likely to persuade the LibDems and Conservatives to stop NHS funding cuts if we’ve got Labour to commit to protecting our NHS.”
Such wishful thinking would be humorous if it weren’t so tragic, and if it didn’t lead to such disastrous consequences for the working class.
Of course, there are people calling themselves communists in Britain selling the very same illusions in the Labour party, but the job of true progressives is to challenge these ideas everywhere we find them and to spread the understanding that, ultimately, salvation for us, and indeed for all of humanity, lies in a communist future that can only be arrived at through revolution.
That can be a difficult message to deliver at meetings where people only want to talk of saving the NHS ‘sensibly’. We support short-term demands to reverse privatisation and save vital services, but these will never be achieved by spreading illusions in the capitalist parties, who all serve our ruling class and are all committed to an agenda of cuts, privatisation and austerity.
Ultimately, we need workers to understand that the only way we will get a really decent, totally free and equal service for all that is not subject to the whims of our rulers or the crises of capitalism is to overthrow those rulers and abolish their insane system. Under socialism, the best possible health care for all will be a human right that no-one has the ability to take away.