Today sees the “Scrap the Cap” protest in Parliament Square, with thousands of nurses demonstrating against the 1% pay cap that is currently imposed on those working in the public sector as a result of the Tories’ austerity programme. Dan Langley, a leading nurse activist, discusses the steps needed in the campaign against the cap.
Today sees the “Scrap the Cap” protest in Parliament Square, with thousands of nurses – supported by other public sector workers and trade unions – demonstrating against the 1% pay cap that is currently imposed on those working in the public sector, as a result of the Tories’ austerity programme.
We publish here a letter by leading nurse activist, Daniel Langley, who discusses the tasks facing nurses and other workers in the fight against pay cuts.
On 24th August, myself, Danielle Tiplady and Zeba Arif met with Janet Davies (General Secretary of the Royal College of Nurses – the RCN), Michael Brown (Chair of Council) and Chris Cox (Director of Membership Relations) to discuss the tactics of the RCN leadership regarding the “Scrap the Cap” campaign. Our focal point of contention concerned engagement with the Conservative Party.
Mike began the meeting by stating unequivocally that his only objective at this time is to ‘scrap the cap’ by the most expedient means. He believes once this is achieved we can move forward, either with the cap scrapped and the independent pay review body left to finish the job, or with the cap staying in place and the RCN having to follow through on its threat of industrial action.
Whilst it is good to hear that the RCN leadership is still open to industrial action, it is clear that this position has been arrived at via a different political route from those of grassroots RCN members and activists. Janet and Mike both resolved that working with the Conservatives is the only way forward. They believe the Tories are worried about revolt in their ranks and we need to “target” individual MPs who are, as they put it, “on the cusp” of turning against their party.
They argue that, due to the royal charter, we are legally not allowed to call out Tories for their damaging austerity measures, as we are not a lobbying group. Essentially, then, the royal charter impedes our activities as a trade union.
This is out of the hands of the RCN leaders, as is the anti-democratic trade union legislation that requires 40% or more of the total membership to vote Yes to industrial action, along with at least a 50% turnout. (Not that the Tories have ever needed the support of the majority of voters to push through their abhorrent laws.)
Another anti-democratic road bump is the ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation, and Arbitration Services). Should we commit to industrial action, this body would apparently ask us: “What did you do to work with the current government?” The RCN leaders argue that, should we fail to exhaust every avenue of working with the government prior to calling a strike, the ACAS would be against us and would refuse to recognise our demands.
But if we are subject to this unelected (and entirely advisory) body, what is the point of the union?
We should not be encumbered by the royal charter, the ACAS, or anything else. These have become roadblocks that prevent the RCN from representing the best interests of our membership ‒ interests that stand in stark contrast to the political interests of the Tories.
Solidarity and action needed
Janet, Mike and Chris stated that they share our strong objections to the Tories’ appalling record ‒ Maria Caulfield (a Tory MP and former nurse) included ‒ on the NHS and public sector pay. Still, these reservations are apparently insufficient to preclude Caulfield from hosting a joint RCN event in parliament.
They said we are ‘overstating’ the situation; as Chris Cox put it: “We shouldn’t be so worried about the things that happen behind closed doors.”
Janet went on to say that “that’s life” about working across the political spectrum and we cannot do anything about it. However, we do worry about what happens behind closed doors and about working with Tories, and we fully intend to do something about it.
Nurses have been fighting against Tory austerity in public and in the open: we have sacrificed our time, with many of us being attacked by the right-wing media, just like the junior doctors. Hypocritical journalists write effusive stories about how we’re all angels and deserve “sympathy” – but as soon as we make demands we are vilified and scorned.
We cannot allow unaccountable negotiations between our union’s leadership and the Conservatives to undermine our efforts. We will not win this fight with backroom manoeuvring: we will win on the basis of solidarity, collective struggle and public support.
Hollow Tory rhetoric
The RCN leadership claims that the only option is to “influence the Treasury”. This minimalist outlook has no basis in political reality.
The current strategy is misguided on two accounts. Firstly, the RCN leaders seemingly believe that Caulfield and other Tories will vote against the whip for the first time in their careers to actually give nurses a proper pay rise not crumbs – at a time when the Tories are hanging on by a thread and desperately afraid of losing power to Jeremy Corbyn!
Let’s say the cap was scrapped. Currently there is speculation in the Sun and Telegraph (on 4/9/2017) of a 2.6% pay rise, with London nurses receiving it first, and then it being introduced in stages over three years. Even this pathetic offer comes as a result of pressure from public sector workers and the fear of a Corbyn victory, not from Tory MPs’ shallow words, fake kindness and tepid think pieces. The Conservatives’ hollow rhetoric is just a move with prevailing winds to shore up their ever-eroding voter base. It is a sign of a weak government.
2.6% is far below what workers need; it’s an insult from a party falling apart, not a victory. The RCN leadership’s focus on wooing Tory politicians neglects the membership, who have already demonstrated that we can rattle this “weak and wobbly” government by protestsin huge numbers. Nurses will be responsible for the victories in this fight, not supposedly sympathetic Tories.
Beyond this, Caulfield has hypocritically used the RCN event to attack Labour on social media and to write articles for the Sun saying it’s time for the cap to go, as she masquerades as someone with integrity. Unfortunately her voting record speaks volumes: she voted to keep the pay cap for public sector workers and didn’t bother to show up for the vote on NHS student bursaries! In the case of the former, it is argued that she had no choice; that to do otherwise and vote for a Labour motion would have brought down her government.
We agree! But this only demonstrates that a Tory government is incompatible with our interests, and also that the Tories are currently on the verge of collapse and civil war. What is needed is a concerted, united, and militant push from the labour movement.
No to cooperation with Tory cutters!
The amendment Caulfield and other ‘sympathetic’ Tories voted against came from Corbyn’s Labour Party. Where would a second one come from? Labour once again! Caulfield and other so-called ‘sympathetic’ Tories will use the exact same excuse (the danger of bringing down her government) to avoid supporting any amendment that attempts to better workers’ lives.
Ask yourself: would Tories even risk rebelling over incremental improvements to workers’ lives if doing so brings Corbyn, the Left, and the labour movement closer to power?
Furthermore, we risk taking all the momentum out of our campaign and demoralising our members if we pursue cross-party cooperation. A recent pay campaign by the University and Colleges Union failed for precisely this reason: an unwillingness by the leadership to affiliate to the Labour Party, and an attempt to appear ‘reasonable’, with lobbying of the Tories effectively decapitating the campaign. In that case, the union sought a 1.1 per cent pay increase to be changed to 1.4 per cent: hardly a lofty objective ‒ and even this failed! We risk the same fate for the Scrap the Cap campaign.
We believe that a cross-party political solution is hollow and opportunistic and offers our members no solution to the current pay restraint and unsafe working conditions. It only serves to strengthen the Conservatives and weaken our union. Working alongside the Tories will undermine our hard-working activists, cost us public support, and ultimately leave us empty handed. It will end our campaign before it truly leaves a mark.
NHS not safe in their hands!
The RCN is not apolitical. There is no neutrality regarding workplace conditions, fair pay, patient care and safe staffing. The Conservatives have proven time and again that the NHS is not safe in their hands, as they continue to defund it and allow privatisation from unregulated vulture companies.
For all these reasons only a socialist alternative can secure the working class gains and protect our NHS for the future – something that appealing to Tory backbenchers will never achieve.
Other unions and public sector workers are looking to the RCN to take the lead in the fightback against Tory austerity and we cannot sabotage such a golden opportunity.
The Tories’ policies of ripping up employment laws and suppressing wages – a programme of austerity and attacks carried out in the interests of the bosses and bankers – are completely irreconcilable with our interests. They are fully committed to brutalising public sector workers and especially committed to dismantling our nation health service – as they have done with all our other public services when given the chance.
Attempting to reason with this Tory government is futile. While the Conservatives remain in power, the NHS will never be safe.
It is not blue-sky thinking to imagine our campaign playing an instrumental role in bringing the government down. Labour is currently five points ahead in the polls; the Tories are on the brink of a civil war over Theresa May’s refusal to step down; and they are severely weakened by Brexit negotiations.
The RCN leadership says it is “not our job” to kick out the government. We disagree. This objective is entirely possible, and is the only way our goals can be achieved. In the meantime, we refuse to cooperate with our executioners.
Our standpoint is simple:
- No Conservative MPs, nor any MPs who voted for the cap, should be allowed to host future RCN events.
- The RCN leadership must end its flirtation with the idea of a cross-party political solution, which would be the death of the pay campaign.
- Nurses cannot win on the basis of Tory charity – we do not need to appeal to our antagonists. No to co-operation with the Conservatives!
- Fully restore nurses lost pay over the last seven years of Tory cuts – a 14% cut in real terms.
- The RCN should link up with other trade unions and the Labour Party and openly plan for an all-out 24-hour public sector strike.
- Bring down the Tory government! Labour to power on a socialist programme!