In the evening on Monday 28th September, around 5,000 junior doctors and their sympathisers gathered in Westminster for a semi-spontaneous protest against the attacks on their pay and conditions, and against the attempts by the Tories to slash the NHS and open the door to privatisation. Guy Howie reports on the inspiring struggle of the junior doctors.
As I came out of Westminster tube station on Monday evening I realised I was behind several young medics in lab coats, carrying a large sign paying homage to the Prime Minister and his penchant for pigs. As we got closer to the demonstration, the groupings of medics got larger until we were hit by a roar of ‘No ifs! ! No buts! No junior doctor cuts!’
The 5,000-strong protest soon turned into a march to Downing Street, on its way comically dwarfing a Ukrainian nationalist protest on Parliament Square. While marching I got chatting to a few of the protesters, many of whom were medical students facing a scandalous 30% real terms pay decrease as they begin work in the coming years. One noted, “We don’t want to be the generation that allows the dismantling of the NHS.” Many of the placards held up signalled a rallying cry to ‘Save the NHS’; another slogan – ‘Not fair; not safe’ – hinted at the threat posed by these appalling cutbacks to the lives of patients.
When we reached Whitehall the demo was greeted with honks of solidarity from passing motorists and bus drivers, and passing pedestrians began to join. It soon managed to cause a road block, greeted with bemused jubilation by many medics partaking in their first political act. A student who bought a copy of Socialist Appeal explained, “We’re usually too conservative for stuff like this. But something had to give. And this is about more than just pay; no one trains to be a doctor for the salary. We all really care about the NHS and can’t stand what is happening to it.”
The demonstation was called against the NHS employers’ attempts to go behind the backs of the doctors’ union, the BMA, and hold open meetings with individual doctors to cut across collective bargaining rights. That the protest went ahead even though the meetings had been cancelled is tantamount to the fury of junior doctors and medical students, and their resolve to see the struggle through to a victorious conclusion. “We need our union to be like the tube workers’ [RMT],” I was told by one junior doctor. “With that attitude we’d be getting somewhere.” There was a common hope among everyone I spoke to that all medical staff with all of their respective unions would come together and fight cuts to the NHS in one united action. One of the leaders of the demonstration pointed out that the government won’t listen, even to pleas from professionals that these measures endanger lives – the doctors, therefore, have no choice but to strike.
By pressuring their union into a strike ballot junior doctors are leading by example. A Guardian poll of almost 30,000 health workers today returned 95% in support of the strike. If the ballot is successful – which this figure certainly suggests it will be – the task will be for the leaders of unions representing other healthcare workers to harness this huge reserve of solidarity and co-ordinate united action across the NHS. A united front of militant action by healthcare workers would be a huge step towards the unity in action of the entire working class in the general strike that the Tories have so sorely warranted. And as emphasised in this week’s speech by the new Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, at the Labour Party conference, the Corbyn-led Labour Party would back such a strike all the way!
These events would pose an existential threat to the Tory government, and would shake the foundations of the capitalist system they represent. In such a scenario, a revolutionary transformation of society would be possible. Then it wouldn’t simply be Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt – the immediate architect of these cuts – who who have to stand down, as the protest demanded. Anyone who replaces him would have to carry out the same cuts. Instead, this entire class of exploiting profiteers should be consigned to the dustbin of history and replaced with a system providing the very best for human need, in healthcare and beyond.
- Support the junior doctors’ strike!
- For united, national action amongst all healthcare workers!
- Build for a general strike!
- Reclaim the NHS as part of a nationalised planned economy under democratic workers’ control!