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Last year's People's March for the NHS

The Convention for the NHS saw delegates from local campaigns against NHS cuts, closures, and privatisation gather to plan action in the run up to the election and beyond. Report by James Doran

The Convention for the NHS took place at Hammersmith Town Hall on Saturday February 28 and brought together campaigns against health service privatisation and cuts from across England.

Organised by 999 Call for the NHS, the event was intended to bring together delegates from local campaigns against NHS cuts, closures, and privatisation, that exist across England, to share skills and experiences and plan co-ordinated action in the run-up to the general election.

The day was divided between speakers on a range of issues, question and answer sessions, and workshops which reported back to the convention delegates on practical measures for the next few weeks.

Despite coinciding with the big People's Assembly gathering in Manchester, and 38 Degrees calling a day of action on their NHS petition, there was a strong turnout with over a hundred and fifty delegates from groups active in campaigns against hospital closures from Hartlepool to Stafford and from local Keep Our NHS Public and anti-cuts groups from most regions of England.

Winning the blame game

The welcoming speech by 999 Call's Joanna Adams put the blame game in accessible language whilst explicitly linking capitalism and racist scape-goating with the commodification of healthcare. This ability, to link the everyday concerns of working mothers from Darlington with what's happening to local health services with the need to turn the tide against the neo-liberal agenda across the world, makes it possible to overcome the barriers that "local" and "single issue" campaign encounters.

Though not explicitly a socialist-feminist campaign group, the organisers of 999 Call for the NHS are overwhelmingly women and overwhelmingly consider themselves socialists, and the gender balance and politics of the speakers and delegates to the convention was impressive as a consequence.

The ruling class want the election to be fought over Muslims, migrants, and benefit claimants, and for discussion of the NHS to be cast in terms of demonisation and division between different sections of the working class.

So a number of different struggles were connected to the fight against health service privatisation - with speakers and delegates from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which raised the demand for NHS not Trident; Stop TTIP, which is opposing the US-EU trade treaty; and Docs Not Cops, which is seeking to bring together NHS staff who are against racist anti-migrant laws that deny medical treatment.

Planning future actions

The workshops were on the subjects of political action, such as lobbying for the NHS Reinstatement Bill which has been drafted by anti-privatisation academics and will be put before parliament as a private members' bill in the coming weeks; mass action, such as the marches in England and Wales which will aim to reproduce the crowds which followed last year's march from Jarrow to London; and direct action, nonviolent forms of protest involving small numbers of people such as occupations and protest camps.

The party question was inevitably below the surface of discussions, particularly in the workshop I attended on political action. Two months before the general election, the expectation is that there will be another coalition government, perhaps this time of Labour and the Liberals or the SNP.

The three unions representing the most NHS staff - Unison, Unite, and the GMB - are affiliated to the Labour Party. So there was discussion by members of these unions about the ongoing ballot on the pay offer and the dispute might influence the election if there is a vote by members to reject a deal and pursue further strike action.

The memory of the introduction of the internal market into the NHS by Tory governments, then Labour governments' own marketisation and privatisation policies such as Foundation Trusts and Private Finance Initiatives, means that many health service campaigners distrust the claims of Labour's leadership to oppose privatisation and doubt that the election of a Labour government is, in itself, sufficient to reverse the changes introduced by the Tory-led coalition.

This scepticism can lead to some campaigners viewing the party as a monolith and ignoring the work of Labour MPs like Jeremy Corbyn, who is one of the backers of the NHS Reinstatement Bill, and overlooking the cumulative impact of health unions campaigning within the structures of the Labour Party. A generation ago, most of those NHS activists who are also active in other parties, would have been in the Labour Party.

It is for this reason that the Convention for the NHS was not a rally of politicians, but an event to plan action in the run up to the election and beyond. A number of key dates were identified, and the plans developed in the workshops will appear on the 999 call for the NHS website.

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