On Saturday 17th October, over 20,000 marched in London to protest against the government’s changes to junior doctors’ contracts. The mood was one of extreme anger against the government, and Jeremy Hunt in particular. The British Medical Association must harness this mood to defend the NHS against Tory attacks.
On Saturday 17th October, over 20,000 marched in London to protest against the government’s changes to junior doctors’ contracts.
The demo was overwhelmingly composed of junior doctors, as evidenced by the thousands wearing their hospital scrubs. Many other NHS workers attended in solidarity, as well as representatives from other trade unions. The mood was one of extreme anger against the government, and Jeremy Hunt in particular. The British Medical Association (BMA) must harness this mood in order to lead a militant struggle, which, if linked with other unions could begin a reversal of the on-going attacks against the NHS.
Wide support for the struggle
Thousands had attended from hospitals and medical schools across the country. Simultaneous demonstrations were held in Nottingham and Belfast. Many more could not make it to the protests due to their hard work helping patients, with hundreds of family members and friends carrying placards on behalf of those unable to attend. Consultants at London’s major hospitals reportedly worked extra shifts for free, so as to allow juniors to join the protest. This – and the many non-doctors in attendance – shows the high level of support for this struggle.
The dispute is centred on changes to junior doctors’ contracts, which will mean doctors having to work longer hours, for less pay. The BMA have calculated that as a result of the new contracts, junior doctors will see pay cuts of up to 30%.
However, it is not simply the outrageous pay cuts that have resulted in such anger. Doctors are already at breaking point, with many having to work back-to-back 12-hour shifts, with no breaks, and high levels of stress. This inevitably impacts patient care, and is therefore an issue that affects millions. As a result of the changed contracts, this will only get worse, with more accidents resulting from overworked staff.
Raj Jaspall, a sixth-year doctor attending the march stated that:
“I’m here today to stand up for our NHS. These contracts are the beginning of the end. It’s not fair, and it’s not safe.”
Similarly, Erica, a junior doctor from Brighton explained that:
“I’m here today for our contracts, but mostly for the NHS. I’m scared that the Tories are tearing our NHS apart. Our nursing colleagues have already been told that it’s their contracts next, and I think the government are just chipping away until the NHS is broken up.”
NHS under threat
It is therefore not simply the immediate terms and conditions of the junior doctors that are at stake. As many have correctly identified, it is the whole NHS that is under threat. One of the chants on the demo was “make us tired, make us stressed, that’s how you’ll kill the NHS”. Hence the widespread support for this dispute, which is seen as many as being part of the government’s plan to open up the health service to privatisation.
This is undoubtedly true – the Tories would love to open up a multi-billion pound service to the market, where they and their financier friends could make handsome profits. By wearing down services to breaking point, the Tories hope to show that the nationalised health service has “failed”, leading to increased pressure to fully privatise the system. The attacks on junior doctors are clearly a part of this, and many placards on the protest emphasised this point.
However, we should also see these attacks in their wider context – that of the global crisis of capitalism. Many hospitals were saddled with crippling PFI (public finance intiative) debts, even before the crisis. Three out of four hospitals are currently unable to balance their books, and hospitals racked up almost £1 billion in debts in the first three months of this financial year alone. According to the BMA, the NHS is facing a £22 billion funding gap in the next few years. This is at a time when public spending is being cut, in order to reduce the deficit caused by the bailing out of the banks in 2008.
Crisis of the system
Therefore the attacks on junior doctors are also linked to the wider crisis of capitalism. The NHS is facing a monumental funding crisis, which flows from the crisis of the whole capitalist system. Therefore the government is trying to squeeze more work for less money out of the NHS workforce, including junior doctors. This is fundamentally the same struggle as that faced by workers in other sectors, including teachers and tube workers among many others. They are being forced to pay for the crisis of the bankers and the billionaires, through attacks to their salaries and their terms and conditions.
This demonstration served as an important show of strength, and gave enthusiasm to doctors from across the country that they can fight these attacks. It looks likely that BMA members will overwhelmingly support a ballot for industrial action.
However, in order to win, the BMA must go further and link this struggle with the rest of the labour movement. Workers across the whole NHS have come under attack in recent years, not to mention the rest of the public sector. If the combined might of all these struggles were united, they would be a powerful force to be reckoned with.
Ultimately however, this struggle must be linked politically with the struggle for socialism. Although the NHS is not run for profit, within the confines of capitalism it is still subject to the laws of the market – of profit, competition, and artificial scarcity. This is a system that would see hospitals closed, whilst billions are handed out to big banks. A system that cares only for the profits of a handful of billionaires, whilst millions are left with decaying services. Therefore only by planning the economy under democratic workers control – using the vast wealth that currently exists in the hands of a tiny few – can the NHS be properly funded, and decent terms and conditions guaranteed for all.