The scale of the weekend’s emergency protest shows a movement that won’t wait for 2022, reports Jack Sherwood
‘Tory cuts kill, defend the NHS’, a banner (see gallery below of the twelve best) that perhaps sums up the feelings of the 60,000 people marching on Downing Street on Saturday for an ‘emergency demonstration’ over the unprecedented NHS crisis, to demand the dysfunctional and widely-despised Tory government “fix it now”, with “more staff, more beds, more funds”, or leave office altogether.
Thousands also protested and took action in towns and cities around the country in spite of rain, but the #FundOurNHS march in London featured blocs from Huddersfield to Bristol to Southend and rallied on Whitehall with speakers including Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth – who promised to end cuts and privatisation, reverse the Health and Social Care Act (2012), scrap the pay cap on NHS staff and restore training bursaries – and actor-turned-NHS-advocate Ralf Little, who said the decline of the NHS “is not inevitable; it’s a political choice."
Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t make it on the protest, but did send a video message in support, saying that the NHS “is in a crisis created by the Tories and austerity”, and that it “will only survive if we fight for it.
But it was Bristol’s Nicky Romero who most moved the crowd to tears and to passion. She is the mother of teenage girl Becky Romero who took her own life after under-resourced NHS mental health services were unable to offer the support she required in spite of staff’s best efforts.
Nicky seemed to concentrate the anger of the whole protest when she asked:
What kind of future will our children have, if they can’t get the care and support they need and deserve?”
If the NHS was funded adequately, my daughter would still be alive.
How much more blood can the hands of the Government hold?
Overall, the mood on the march was a mixture of compassion, rage and determination, with banners (see gallery below) ranging from a fierce repulsion with the Tories and austerity, to sardonic ridicule of aloof government figures Hunt and May. The privatisers and profiteers were also targeted for particular scorn, with placards targeting Richard Branson and chants such as “Virgin Health, get out, we know what you’re all about: cuts, job losses, money for the bosses.”
Health trades union speakers told of campaigning against the new attempts by some hospitals to create private arms-length companies to degrade workers conditions, and called for an end to chronically desperate low pay, inadequate training for new staff and systemic overwork that leads to “burn-out” and loss of decades-experience staff.
From health workers to campaigners, the many now confronting the situation with absolute frankness have noted that we’re seeing a year-round crisis in the NHS – and one that has become increasingly politicised for large sections of the public.
Or as nurse and campaigner Jacqui Berry put it at the rally of the protest, “the crisis in the NHS is the new normal, and it is a crisis that is politically manufactured.” She also spoke of staff feeling they are “working in a system that has set us up to fail”, with droves leaving the profession and 15,000 beds lost over the last six years. The answer she points towards is the need for coordinated industrial action by workers across the NHS to be demanded of union leaders and built from below.
It is clear that there is a great need for us to stay in the streets, fight to win local campaigns against privatisation and cuts and continue to join up protest on a national scale in order to make the NHS and social care defining issues of the horrendous human cost of Tory austerity and market-driven policies. That is, to make these issues – instead than a source of division amongst working people – a front of fierce collective solidarity and mass resistance to an establishment that is increasingly losing control.
Saturday’s mass mobilisation must have given significant confidence to health workers and their unions (many were present) – showing the huge scale of support they could receive - should they consider strike action over the next year, as many in the movement hope they will, when they receive annual pay offers.
It has also provided a clear signal to Corbyn’s Labour party that there is a huge appetite for street activity that dissents and aims to bring an end to this government much sooner than 2022, and for a movement outside parliament which can, on the one hand, unite the broadest sections of ordinary people in demanding public services run in their interests (not those of the few) and, on the other hand, skewer the Tories on their NHS failures as the party ‘not fit to govern’.
Dr Tony O’Sullivan, retired paediatrician and Co-Chair of Health Campaigns Together, an organisation who helped coordinate the march, put it aptly in his speech at Saturday’s rally:
Last March  we had the biggest demonstration ever for the NHS and we changed the mood of the country; our general election ‘NHS roadshow’ helped change the vote of the country; and now if they refuse to change their hostility to the NHS, we will help change the government of this country.
It was encouraging to see a number of Labour banners on Saturday’s protest and several activists on board our Bristol coaches, some of whom passed supportive People’s Assembly model motions in their CLPs and prompted local Labour MPs to offer their support.
However we must now demand and hope that many more local Labour groups, MPs and the party’s leadership – alongside a range of campaigns, unions and groups – will come on board and rally all their supporters (not just offer limited personal support) to future broad-based national austerity protests and rallies, such as the TUC’s ‘New deal for working people’ demonstration on May 12th and NHS 70th birthday activities in the summer.
This way we can build a working class movement that is capable, in the first place, of forcing collapse and decisive electoral defeat for this Tory government before it further destroys the NHS and tens of thousands more lives of those left untended in overcrowded hospital corridors and vulnerable and helpless at home. But also a movement that is big enough and profound enough to defend the policies of any new government that might seek to reverse the decades of neoliberal calumny and sabotage in crisis-ridden public services. In the words of Saturday’s banners, a movement to impose the interests of “people not profit” in our society.
In pictures: the twelve best banners from the #FundOurNHS march!
The anger was palpable...
A skeletal service: Bristol paramedics on the march...
'No borders in the NHS': docs not cops on the march...
The NHS is a family affair...
Nicky Romero and campaigner Kaz Higgins on the march with Bristol's 'Justice For Becky Romero' campaign...
Outside Downing Street: 'this is the last straw'...
Tory policies kill patients...
Nurses of the RCN on the march... #CloseTheGap
No more austerity: drawing the line...
Tory cuts kill... top banner.
No statue to Jeremy Hunt...
Save the NHS, from the vulture capitalists...
Jack Sherwood has been an organiser in the People's Assembly and Stop the War.
Based in Bristol, he coordinated the largest demonstrations and public meetings in the city 2014-2019: against austerity, in support of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of Labour, over the Junior Doctors' struggle and against the British bombing of Syria.
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