The 28th of March in Leeds saw a hugely significant march to defend the NHS organised by Leeds Keep Our NHS Public. It saw over 1,000 people come from across Leeds, and other Yorkshire cities to march through Leeds City centre in defiance against government cuts to NHS funding.
Ben Mayor, Leeds Socialist Party and TUSC PPC for Leeds West
The NHS is being slowly dismantled by the ConDem Coalition government, sold off to the lowest bidder, companies such as Virgin Care, Care UK and others who seek to make profit out of people’s illness, disability and care.
The march assembled outside Leeds Art Gallery to hear speakers before the march began, gradually growing until the square was filled with protestors. Once the march assembled before leaving through the city headed by a huge banner condemning the current ‘reforms’ to the NHS carried by nurses and doctors from the Keep Our NHS Public Campaign.
The square was filled with a gallery of pictures of Britain from the air. If only a picture could have been taken from above in Leeds that day it would have shown the huge scale of opposition that exists to the dismantling of the NHS.
When the march made its way through the city centre people on the paths and in the streets greeted it with applause, smiles and cheers, car and bus drivers beeped their horns in solidarity to huge cheers from the marchers.
Members of the public quickly snatched up copies of our Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition leaflets, outlining a strategy to defeat cuts to public spending, austerity and the main parties. Many a time we would be stopped by members of the public to discuss. One man asked, ‘Are you a Socialist- the rest of them are crooks’, referring to the main parties.
The atmosphere was huge, any representative of the main parties that was present must have realised the human cost of their policies. The NHS was fought for to be set up and people are prepared to fight to keep it.
Once the march returned to the Art Gallery we assembled to hear speeches from campaigners and political representatives. By the far the best contribution from the platform was from a firefighter, showing solidarity from the Fire Brigades Union who have been engaged in a struggle to defend their pensions. The FBU member recited a poem espousing all of our feelings towards and passion for the NHS.
The march also heard speeches from the Green Party and the Labour Party. The representative from the Labour Party spoke about how much we all ‘love our NHS’ and argued for cross party unity in defending it. The summary of the Labour Party position was, no matter what, we need this government out in order to defend the NHS.
The Labour Party should check its history before making such bold claims that the NHS would be safe in their hands. Given that they continued the privatisation of the NHS since 1997 and failed to support health workers on strike for a 1% pay rise towards the end of last year. This is even despite the main unions involved in the dispute being affiliated to the Labour party.
The Green party representative passionately retold stories from friends of his whom work within the NHS, from doctors to Nurses; he spoke of the long stressful hours and difficulty in working in reduced staffing environments as a result of the cuts. The Green Party outlined that they were strongly against the cuts to the NHS.
Socialist Party members and TUSC supporters would agree with them, it however is difficult to see how this would be implemented by the Green Party, given that they have, where they have had power, in Brighton, handed NHS contracts to private companies, which came under criticism by some in their party. The Green representative also spoke of their pledge to increase the minimum wage to £10 an hour, forgetting to mention however that they have pledged this by 2020. Far too late for many low paid workers, including myself.
From both the Green party and the Labour Party there was so much lacking in substance and a continuation of bland phrases which accounted for or meant nothing in reality. Ordinary working people and health workers do not need to be told again and again how we love our NHS. We want to defend it from privatisation and the being sold off for profit at the expense of healthcare, free at the point of use for everybody.
How much better would it have been to hear from trade union activists about what was really necessary, a health sector wide ballot of all of the health unions to call for industrial action over pay, the development of a serious strategy of not just one day of strike action but of a programme of escalating action.
As we spoke to health workers and social workers on the march this was widely discussed and accepted. One Unison member commented that this was the only thing that could end privatisation and questioned the role of the Labour Party and others in proclaiming to be against cuts while implementing them.
As a member of the public observing the march asked me about the Green Party, ‘what are your thoughts on the Green Party- if you’re against cuts, you don’t make them!’
Neither of the main party speakers mentioned that the NHS funding gap is £30bn, yet the debt owed to private companies within the NHS is £60bn. Why not scrap the PFI debt as one quick way of solving NHS funding problems. The reality is that this is a robbery of public assets and was never a sustainable way of funding our health service.
Socialist Party members and TUSC supporters were well received in the march by everyone we spoke to and our material was well received, the NHS is under an onslaught. We cannot put any faith in any of the main parties at this general election to reverse the cuts or privatisation of our greatest public service. It is the organisation of workers in the health unions and the general public which has the power to stop the attacks on the NHS by calling for a bold programme of strike action against low pay, staffing levels and ultimately, against the selling off of the NHS.
The Socialist Party and TUSC have been at the picket lines of NHS workers throughout and we will continue to do so no matter who is in government and who is implementing the cuts and we will do all we can to develop this battle for our health service and within the unions, for a real voice for ordinary working people and the 99%.