The Tories are in deep trouble over Lansley’s health ‘reforms’. Their Lib Dem coalition partners are deeply split over it, in the Lords Shirley Williams appears to be among those fighting hardest to defeat it. The Labour Party meanwhile, though it has capitulated on the public sector pay freeze and on the wider issue of cuts, is making defeating it in parliament a cause celebre. And rightly so, as the proposals are a deadly threat to the NHS, aimed at fragmenting it and allowing private health companies to virtually tear off profitable chunks of it for themselves. It also aims at integrating the NHS into economic sectors governed by EU competition laws that ostensibly oppose ‘monopoly’, thus imposing marketisation and a slide to outright privatisation through extra-territorial legal fiat.
No doubt the Bullingdon Club boys are quietly chortling to themselves at this spiffing wheeze. The Eurosceptic-dominated Tories setting a trap for the Euro-friendly Labourites using EU law to stymie attempts by a future reformist government to reverse this attack on the NHS. In this they calculate, probably correctly, that the cretinous subservience of Labour to capitalism and bourgeois legality will mean they will maintain whatever ‘gains’ the Tories are able to acheive in demolishing or partially demolishing the NHS.
Notwithstanding all that, the government is in deep shit over the NHS Bill. They have most of the Royal Colleges, of Midwives, of Nurses, of GP’s and the GMC up in arms against them over this, demanding the Bill be scrapped. This when GP’s are supposed to be the people running much of the new setup! They have absolutely no democratic mandate whatsoever for any of this; no major change to the NHS was proposed in either the Tory or the Lib Dem manifestos. Very much the opposite, they all promised ‘stability’ and real terms increases in spending.
The popular outrage is growing; the implementation of the measures in the Bill has already begun even though it has not passed through parliament yet. The coalition has already made a big show of concessions after the Bill’s progress threatened to come to a juddering halt last year, and they supposedly put it out for a cooling off period and extra consultation. But now it is back, and they are trying against considerable resistance to push it through.
Because of the flagrant lack of a democratic mandate, and the complete mendacity of the government, this is actually an issue over which determined and militant trade union action would actually be very popular. To say this may go against the grain of what has become conventional wisdom in the labour movement over the past few decades, where the fatalistic belief that militancy ‘loses votes’ and all that jazz has become deep rooted.
But over this question, trade unionism, if there were a bunch of prominent leaders who were prepared to take the initiative, could place itself at the head of something that has the potential to be quite momentous. If the TUC could be pressured, coerced, you name it, from below, to call a mass protest on a working day and ask all its afflilated unions to call their members to take time off work to support it: collectively where the strength of organisations exists, it could have an electrifying effect.
Especially if it were made clear that there would be more to come, with regular, rolling and accelerating protests overlapping with strike action, regulating the pace of such things according to the strength of popular response to such actions and activities. Such a movement, more or less openly defying Thatcher’s laws that make political strikes unlawful, and escalating as is very likely, would put the government in a very difficult position indeed. The NHS is still an enormously popular institution in this country, so much so that those who want to destroy it are still an utterly despised minority among ordinary people.
It might not even have to be the TUC – a coalition of relevant unions whose leaders were determined could themselves have a similar effect if they were so minded. At least they could kick something off.
If trade unions were to be subject to a legal attack for real, not merely verbal defence of the NHS through ‘unlawful’ industrial action against a overt, undemocratic privatising assault, this could unite the bulk of the population behind the trade unions in a manner not seen since the early 1970s. Such things should certainly give Cameron and his cohorts nightmares. It would also offer the opportunity to exhume the political corpse of Thatcher from its grave and drive an enormous stake through her black heart (yes, I know she’s not actually dead yet, but its a nice thought anyway!)
The opportunity is there; the only thing missing is a coherent political alternative that can lead the labour movement to take such a course of action. That’s why we need something like TUSC, or better still a real, broad-based working class party that can unite all socialists, trade unionists, unemployed people, members of oppressed minorities and others targetted by the ruling class to struggle against capitalism itself.
But in the meantime, it would be good for anyone who accepts what I say here and is in a position to do anything to bring it about to do just that.