Yesterday, on 6th September, nurses descended upon Parliament Square in their thousands for a demonstration organised by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) to demand the pay that they deserve. Dan Langley, a leading grassroots nurse activist, reports on the mood amongst nurses in the fight against Tory-imposed austerity.
Yesterday, on 6th September, nurses descended upon Parliament Square in their thousands for a demonstration organised by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) to demand the pay that they deserve.
Supported by other public sector workers and trade unions, nurses made it abundantly clear that the 1% pay restraint forced upon us as a result of brutal Tory austerity must be abandoned.
Approximately 2000-3000 nurses, healthcare assistants and associate practitioners created an ecstatic atmosphere as they watched speeches and chanted for fair pay and a well-funded NHS. With the majority of healthcare staff still on shift, many of these workers had to use annual leave to be able to join the protest.
This shows the commitment that exists to mounting a fight back and reflects just how many hours healthcare staff give day-in day-out to care for some of the most sick and vulnerable in society.
In the speeches, it was the grassroots activists who shone through, as compared to the relatively uninspiring musings of the RCN leaders who spoke about ‘non-party politics’ and avoided blaming the Tories outright. Such shallow rhetoric fell flat with the crowd, who can see clearly that the Tories are to blame for their daily hardships.
This is why the speech from Danielle Tiplady – a leading rank-and-file nurse activist – was met with such rapturous applause. Her story of strife resonated with so many. As Danielle told the crowd:
“Starting my journey as a qualified nurse wasn’t easy at all. I first worked in the community. I loved the job, seeing a person not just a patient. But I rather stupidly thought I might be able to afford a car. I was wrong. I walked [long distances between patients’ homes] every day come rain or shine.”
On the ground, we had a brief discussion with pay champion and leading RCN activist, Michael Coram, who has worked tirelessly on behalf of the RCN:
How do you feel about the demonstration today?
I think it’s been amazing. So many people turned up; the atmosphere has been great. There is definitely energy. I think now everyone is up for the next stage of the fight…a ballot for industrial action. I don’t see that the government will scrap the cap – if they do great, but I’m certainly prepared for the next bit of the fight.
Regarding the rumours in the press that Theresa May might be considering a 2.6% cap: what would your response be?
My understanding of the rumours is that it’s 2.6% over two years, which is 1.3% per year – so only 0.3% more than we’re already getting; not really a bonus I think. That’s pennies. It’s meaningless; it’s soundbite stuff.
Do you imagine that’ll be the feeling across the RCN?
Yep, across the membership and across nursing in general.
During the speeches, when Janet Davies (General Secretary of the RCN) spoke, she was clearly against the cap. But she also stated that this protest and campaign was non-party political action. Do you think the RCN needs to rid themselves of this viewpoint?
Me, personally: yes. But I understand that we have a membership that’s got a lot of political persuasions – and none at all – and that’s always going to be a difficult course to chart. But would I like to see them more politically engaged? Yes absolutely.
If it came to a question of the RCN affiliating to Labour in order to support Jeremy Corbyn, what would be your view of that?
I would be in favour of it, though with a broad membership I could see that some would continue along the lines that the RCN should stay apolitical.
Would you like to see your industrial action unite with other workers across the public sector?
That would be the ideal, but first we need to unify the nursing unions. GMB, UNITE, Unison, RCN all coming together – it’s starting to happen. UNITE are getting on board and Unison are slowly, but they’re playing catch up. We need that united front across our healthcare unions.
Do you think the NHS will be safe with the Tories in government? And do you think they can be brought down?
No [the NHS isn’t safe]. I think this government’s position is very weak now after the general election. The next few months will be very interesting. I think May has to go and we can then look at another election. The polling out there shows we might get a change of government.
To the detriment of the [Scrap the Cap] campaign, an RCN event with Maria Caulfield (a Tory MP) inside the Houses of Parliament went ahead – a move that will be cynically used as publicity for this fledgling Tory government.
This event took place just across the hall from the PMQs. During questions in the first session back, Corbyn spoke of the rally, where nurses chanted his name against the wishes of the RCN leadership. The Labour leader challenged May over the pay restraint:
“Poor pay means experienced staff are leaving and fewer people are training to become nurses. There is already a shortage of 40,000 nurses across the UK. Will the Prime Minister please see sense and end the public sector pay cap and ensure our NHS staff are properly paid?”
Corbyn also quipped about how May had no problem finding £1bn to please the DUP, so how is right that NHS staff are driven to foodbanks. As Corbyn remarked: “warm words don’t pay food bills.”
May’s dismal reply was as follows: “We believe in sound money, he [Corbyn] believes in higher debt.”
This is a completely baseless remark, which ignores the actual point Corbyn made and the fact that debt under the Tories has skyrocketed, whilst the deficit has not been eliminated, despite years of austerity and cuts.
Additionally this so called “sound money” is clearly only in the hands of the bosses and bankers; their profits too have skyrocketed, whilst the majority languish on poverty wages.
May didn’t confirm or deny any lifting of the cap as she nauseatingly dubbed NHS staff as “this, that and the other” in regards to spending costs. All she showed today was her contempt for the working class and her wonderful skills of avoiding questions, which clearly haven’t become rusty after a long summer recess.
Corbyn also correctly pointed out that pledges she squeezed into her manifesto were already being reneged on – so why would anyone trust her word over the pay cap?
The newspapers mentioned the possibility of a 2.6% rise, and for many workers and trade unionists this will understandably be a relief. But it is an affront to nurses and all other public sector workers watching with baited breath, who have all faced years of sustained economic attacks in order to pay for a financial crisis not of their doing.
Reports explicitly state that this change of position for the Tories has been introduced to draw attention from the Brexit fiasco and to claw back some authority for May and her government. They are rapidly losing ground to Corbyn’s Labour, whose left-wing programme has undermined the idea of austerity and helped shift public mood to the left.
This dispute is one of many in our crisis-ridden healthcare system. This week, NHS chiefs warned that this winter could be the worst ever in terms of strains on the NHS. Bed waiting times are permanently a national emergency, and the Office of Budget Responsibility estimates an NHS budget shortfall of £15bn by 2020. But even this underestimates the extremity of the situation, as the expectation is based on an NHS that only meets the bare minimum of service, instead of the excellent healthcare service you would expect in one of the world’s largest economies in the 21st century.
But capitalism is unable to offer this. As it stands, all hospitals are desperately short of staff and exist in a permanent state of struggle just to meet basic standards.
This crisis, however, is completely artificial. Britain is one of the richest countries in the world and it spends much less on healthcare than other countries. Hundreds of billions sit in the bank accounts of big business. Profits are at record highs. Last year, non-financial firms in the UK stock-piled another £74bn in profits, the largest on record.
There is more than enough money for the NHS and for nurses pay, but the Tories won’t touch it. Instead they want further tax breaks for big business!
The government is extremely weak. The Tories’ austerity programme is completely discredited. Labour is ahead in the polls on the basis of its most left-wing programme in decades. Now is not the time to work with the Tories – it is the time to oppose them with militant, determined and well-organised action. This could be the death knell of their government.