Go get organized!

In 2004 the fragrant Oliver Letwin reportedly told a private meeting that “the NHS will not exist” within five years of a Conservative government being elected. Letwin ‘furiously denied’ that he had said any such thing and that the Tories were in no way planning massive public spending cuts should they come to power (although he freely admitted earlier this year that public sector workers should be “scared and disciplined”).

And yet here we are.

The relatively untroubled (at least within Westminster) passage of the government’s NHS reform bill means that we are one step closer to the beginning of the end of what is globally recognised to be one of the finest health services in operation. It was closer than it could have been, thanks to strenuous campaigning; as 38 Degrees have pointed out, it would have taken just 35 Lords to vote for Lord Owen’s amendment for the bill to have been passed to a special committee, something the government have conceded would have all but killed off the bill. In the end the Labour and Tory Lords voted as to be expected, the cross benchers were evenly divided, but 80 Lib Dem Lords voted against the amendment with only two voting for. Clegg and his fellow quislings have truly sold their souls to the devil and seem hell bent on sowing the seeds of their future destruction in exchange for some fleeting ‘glory’, to be seen as true power brokers after nearly a century in the political wilderness.

The selling off of the NHS is not a new scheme for the Tories – they first started planning it in the early Thatcher years as part of a tranche of such schemes colloquially known as “selling off the family jewels”. The 80s saw national behemoths such as the utilities companies, already paid for and operated by public money, sold back to ‘us’ in the name of the markets. Twenty plus years on we now see those companies declaring ever greater profits while charging ever higher prices. The Tories realised that doing the same to the NHS would be a much harder task and so concentrated on the ‘assets’ that were easier to dispose of. Once Thatcher was ousted, while the political will may have remained, the gradual disintegration of their government over the following six years meant that the NHS was ‘safe’.

However, the first inroads had been made and the ‘internal market’ was introduced in 1990, the first sign of competition within the NHS. Labour loudly denounced this move and declared the Tories’ intent to privatise the NHS, and on coming to power in 1997 Tony Blair promised to remove the internal market saying in December that year:

“The White Paper we are publishing today marks a turning point for the NHS. It replaces the internal market with “integrated care”… Our approach combines efficiency and quality with a belief in fairness and partnership. Comparing not competing will drive efficiency.”

Surprise surprise, by the time of his second term Blair had renounced this and instead looked to the internal market as a key part of his plans to modernise the NHS. Since then many internal services have been ‘outsourced’, for which we can read ‘privatised’. Most notable to the public among these have been the cleaning and catering services, today two of the most criticised aspects of the NHS.

Another branch of this creeping privatisation of the NHS has been the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). First introduced under the Tories led by John Major in 1992, PFI was again roundly denounced by Labour in opposition but by the time they achieved power in 1997 it had suddenly become a good thing. Doublespeak, anyone?

The point to be made here is that we cannot solely blame the current government for what’s happening. It has a direct lineage from the Tories in 1979, or even earlier under Labour when Denis Healey went cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and obtained loans but only in exchange for severe cuts to public services. The IMF, along with the World Bank (both are proponents of PFI), attempts to impose its neo-liberal pro-markets, anti-public sector agenda wherever it sets foot and it is this neo-liberalism which has been at the forefront of UK politics for the past three decades or more, regardless of party colours. One of the main reasons the Tories are attempting to push through the slash and burn reforms to the public sector is that there was no repeal by Labour during their years in power of what had been started under Thatcher; Blairite New Labour instead stood for neo-liberalism and the markets as much as anyone else and so left the path clear for Cameron to ‘purge’. In essence, Labour gave Cameron a head start.

The past 30 years have seen a dramatic change in UK political discourse so that the draconian ‘reforms’ being enacted on us are seen as being ‘common sense’ and ‘practical’, and any opposition is seen as being idealistic and naive. Gordon Brown, far from the overspending saviour of the public sector he is portrayed and often accepted as, said of PFI that its rationale is to:

“…declare repeatedly that the public sector is bad at management, and that only the private sector is efficient and can manage services well.”

This political discourse is repeated ad nauseum by the mainstream media, from Sky News to the BBC, the intention being to marginalise and disenfranchise those who oppose ‘common sense measures’. Imagine 30 years ago a Labour or Liberal MP suggesting that university grants should be abolished and fees charged; and yet Labour introduced the first charges and the Liberals as part of the coalition have voted for their potentially crippling increase. In those same 30 years we have seen social housing devastated by Right to Buy while neo-liberal policies created and maintained an artificial housing bubble to aid the markets – the result is that not only is buying a property impossible for many, the attendant severely unregulated private rental sector combined with the depletion of social housing stock has left even greater numbers paying unjustifiably high rents for private accommodation of an increasingly bad standard.

The battle at present is understandably focused on the NHS, but the war must be against neo-liberalism. It is this selfish ideology that has led us to our current position where we are told that to want a just and equal society is too idealistic, that we must succumb to ‘common sense’. I can’t accept that. Where I will admit to some naivety is in thinking that Labour would start shrugging off the shackles of neo-liberalism and remember their roots and the achievements of people like Nye Bevan; but with their fear of being seen to back ‘radical’ actions such as the huge March 30th demo and the mass strike action, and their admitting at conference that they will not reverse actions being taken by the coalition, it is clear that they are still part of the neo-liberal discourse that now dominates our lives.

Today we have seen the publication of two reports focusing on the ‘failings’ of the NHS. A cynical person could say that the timing of these reports is somewhat coincidental what with yesterday’s vote in the Lords; that these reports show the need for ‘reform’ in the NHS. While I am cynical, I would agree that there is need for ‘reform’; that the systemic failings shown in these reports are the consequence of the de facto privatisation which has already happened, and that further marketisation of the NHS can only make things worse. I wonder how it will be reported in the mainstream media…

We must now look to ourselves to be the agents of change. Mass actions have already happened and will continue to do so, and we must make them matter. Without the pressure applied by the half a million people signed up to 38 Degrees’ campaign to save the NHS, the bill may have already been passed. I have listed some links below that give ideas of what can be done, and there are many others out there to be found. Please read them, share them, get organised, and make a stand. This is happening all over the world, make it happen here.

An excellent piece on activism by Tim Hardy

Stuart Hall on neo-liberalism

The 38 Degrees website

The TUC website

UK Uncut

The Global Nonviolent Action Database

The Coalition of Resistance

Occupy London

Occupy Manchester

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