Is Labour about to wake up?

At what could be a formative meeting between John McDonnell (Shadow Cnancellor), Heidi Alexander (Shadow spokesperson for health) and around 40 NHS campaigners, there was the promise of a fruitful way forwards to save the NHS from ruin, and NHS staff from further despair.

NHS over commons

The meeting, in the plain-sounding ‘Committee Meeting Room 20’ hidden away in the labyrinthine heights of the Houses of Commons, gave NHS campaigners the chance – though brief – to let Labour know exactly what they thought the problems were.

There was no shortage of plain speaking. Several people, hardened campaigners and themselves NHS professionals,  were moved to tears as they relayed the hard truth: the NHS is dying figuratively, and patients are dying literally as a result of years of cuts, heartless application of hostile ideology, and the absence of an effective opposition to date.

You can’t deny feeling like that, nor ignore its sincerity.

The NHS is already undergoing a massive reorganisation, in the worst possible way – through piecemeal privatisation and the wrecking of staff terms and conditions (and the staff themselves). Action was needed, and needed now: once the land was sold, once the private companies were in place, once TTIP was part of the legal framework, it really would be impossible to put back all the pieces. And a shattered service, lying in pieces and lied about to the public, is what would happen unless it could be stopped.

John McDonnell was delayed because he had to lead the debate on tax avoidance in the Commons. But Heidi Alexander attended for a good portion of the meeting, which lasted one and a half hours. She emphasised several times that she was committed to ending NHS privatisation, but remained doubtful over whether the NHS Bill itself was the answer. John McDonnell gave an assurance that this was the start of a dialogue, part of Labour’s intentions to have a more discursive approach to politics. Both MPs were left in no doubt as to the meeting’s growing alarm at Labour’s apparent failure to place the NHS as the highest of its priorities. John McDonnell’s team assured the meeting that this would be relayed back to those responsible for setting the agenda, which in practice had to be set in place within the next 18 months on the assumption that the current government would not fall prior to the 2020 election.

John McDonnell’s team were interested in the idea of developing a ‘think tank’ through Health Campaigns Together, as a way of ensuring he received advice from campaigners in future, who together had hundreds if not thousands of years of experience over the threats to the NHS and fighting them at all levels.

A constructive meeting, and certainly one in which genuine and passionate feelings were made plain. If Labour are serious, it may mark the start of a way for the campaigns to be heard, and acted upon. If this proves to be obfuscation, then Labour will have lost the chance to engage the most committed, enthusiastic, experienced and sincere movement it could to save the NHS – and its own political future. Forwards in hope or to ruin? Time will tell. And it is running out.

You can download a summary of the meeting here.

Alan Taman

Communications Manager, DFNHS

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