Yesterday activists from Defend the NHS, The Labour Representation committee and the GMB union organised a demonstration in defence of Brighton NHS. The demonstration was called to coincide with the arrival of Matthew Kershaw as NHS Trust Chief Executive. Kershaw is fresh from his role as Trust Special Administrator at Lewisham where he pushed through plans to close the A&E and Maternity services and close all the acute wards at the hospital, in the face of mass community opposition. I’ve written more about this issue here. I attended the demonstration as I have been active in the campaign to save Lewisham Hospital and wanted to show my solidarity with those in Brighton fighting to defend the NHS and oppose the repellent axe-man that is Kershaw.
Having seen the devastation Kershaw’s actions will cause in South London, the GMB decided to meet Kershaw head on and not wait for him to get comfortable in his new position. The demonstration was lively and supported by many local residents, students from the Sussex occupation, anti-austerity activists and the local Labour Party. It was a shot across the bows of Kershaw and showed the sort of campaign he would face if he tried to push through his cuts agenda in Brighton.
The demonstration was well attended and as it marched through Brighton attracted lots of support from the populace, motorists, truck drivers and local council workers. Several rubbish trucks drove past in convoy, loudly beeping their horns and waving as they passed the demo.
Union members, GMB officials, anti-cuts activists, Sussex students and local Labour party members spoke at the final rally in Victoria Gardens. One Labour speaker promised that when elected they would repeal the Health and Social Care Bill and renationalise the privatised parts of the NHS. While a welcome promise, they are easy to make in opposition. Labour promised to renationalise the railways when elected in 1997, they had 13 years and they are still privatised. They also completely glossed over Labour’s role in creating the internal market in the NHS, the mass of PFI deals, payments by results and other NHS reforms which laid the groundwork for the Tories to bring in the HASC Bill. Labour speakers were heckled about their support for the bedroom tax and welfare reform, despite their appeals for “unity”. It shows Labour won’t receive an easy ride over the next two years if they keep carrying through the cuts at a local level, and don’t take a principled stand against the vicious welfare cuts. We do need unity against the cuts, but this has to be unity where all participants take common action against the cuts, not a unity whereby we are asked to hide our criticisms of those participating in austerity.
Mick Foote, GMB rep at the hospital gave an impassioned speech against Kershaw and the mismanagement of the hospital, it is worth a watch:
The demonstration was exactly the sort of action we need from the unions; proactive, uncompromising, uniting with anti-austerity activists and working to involve and mobilise the community to build a broad movement of opposition to austerity. It is through these sorts of actions, aimed at creating a fighting spirit amongst staff and the community, that the strength to stop the cuts can be instilled in the the movement.
What was sad and all too familiar was the lack of support from UNISON Health for the demonstration. Activists from the Local Government UNISON branch were present, as were activists and staff from the UNISON Sussex Partnership (Mental Health) branch, Brighton UCU turned up as did members of a local UNITE branch, but the UNISON hospital branch leadership had not actively participated in the organising the demonstration and were not present in any capacity on the demo, although individual UNISON members from the hospital did take part.
UNISON both locally and nationally have to change their approach. They cannot stand aside from these protests, it is both a dereliction of duty to our members to defend their jobs and to the community to defend our public services. UNISON has enormous resources, which could make these and similar actions happen up and down the country, helping to develop and create the kind of mass movement of health workers and community protests which are needed to save the NHS. By doing nothing, UNISON weakens the struggle against austerity. On a pragmatic level, UNISON will lose masses of members if the leadership continue like this, as members will not see the point in being in a union which talks a lot and yet does nothing to defend them against the cuts. UNISON officials need to come out of their right-wing bunker and join the movement against austerity, or they will be left behind.