Last night’s NHS rally at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster had one incredibly powerful moment. It was when the chair, Tracy Brabin, the new MP for Batley and Spen, called the fifth out of six excellent platform speakers to the rostrum. She was an older woman called Aneira Thomas, and if her first name is an unfamiliar one, well, she was named after a man – Aneurin Bevan – the founder of Britain’s National Health Service in July 1948. And Aneira was the first baby welcomed into the world by that Health Service at 12.01am, on the day the NHS was born.
She exudes warmth and commitment to the causes she believes in, and her top priority is the NHS. She spent a lifetime working as a mental health nurse. When she spoke with such passion I melted, and I am sure others around me felt the same emotions. Many in the room gave her a standing ovation. I don’t know if the moment was captured on the News last night, but if the media posse, out in such force for Peter Tatchell’s stunt a few days ago, were there, they were pretty well hidden.
There were many very good aspects to the rally beyond Aneira’s exceptional contribution. Alongside Tracy Brabin, there were three MPs. The first to speak was Sarah Champion, Shadow Minister for Women’s Equality, who set out very clearly the negative impact that cuts to health and social care were having on women of different generations, forcing many to give up work to take on caring roles. Shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, who represents Leicester South, but comes from further north, had strong words for UKIP’s great white hope Paul Nuttall – proud to be a working class northerner, and proud also to be an NHS privatiser given half a chance. Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, gave a storming speech – which tore into the Conservatives’ agenda of selling off the health service, placed the life and death cuts being made to it alongside the huge handouts for the Tories’ mates through cuts to Corporation Tax, and argued forcefully that health care was not a privilege but a right. For everyone in Britain.
Alongside the national politicians, was the Labour leader of Greenwich Council, Denise Hyland who described how the cuts played out at local level, and Eleanor Smith a theatre nurse at Birmingham’s Women’s hospital, and the first black woman to be president of UNISON, reporting from the front line, where she has been for the last 39 years.
The event was slickly presented – music in the room before and after, a short powerful set of images on a screen before the speakers appeared representing Labour’s achievements in recent decades. The unity of purpose among the speakers was abundantly clear. The warmth and mutual appreciation between Jeremy Corbyn and his fellow MPs on the platform, despite the strained relationships in the PLP, constantly highlighted by the mainstream media, shone through. And yet there were also missed opportunities.
A wise fellow socialist , sadly no longer with us, always told me that when you look at government spending on education and health, don’t fix your gaze only on where the money goes in but check where it comes out too. One of the scandals of the health service inTory hands is the huge profits made by the pharmaceutical industry. One Big Pharma company , Pfizer (yes, the one Owen Smith used to work for), has just been caught out, and fined £84.2m for overcharging the NHS. They are the tip of the iceberg, but none of the speakers mentioned the pharmaceutical industry, or asked who they will pay the fine to (government or NHS?), or said how Labour might regulate these profiteers.
And while Jeremy Corbyn was absolutely right to highlight the obscenity of cuts to corporation tax, he and other speakers could have spelt out precisely what the government is choosing to spend money on. For example, the £369m project to refurbish Buckingham Palace. These are arguments that activists need to be armed with.
The biggest omission, though, was in relation to UKIP. Jonathan Ashworth presented half the argument here, exposing UKIP’s pretence at standing up for working people when they want to dismantle the NHS and sell it to private capitalists, yet it is the very service that working class people most need to be able to depend upon.
But UKIP’s key message to working class people at the moment has a different emphasis. it is to encourage them to blame immigrants and refugees for the difficulties they encounter. They are ramping up racism against a range of targets, thinking this will play out well among struggling working class people. While some in the Labour Party are buckling, Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott, in particular, have made strong statements against racism, and in defence of free movment, and the contribution migrants make.
This could and should have been reiterated powerfully last night in the context of defending the NHS. The NHS is our strongest example of the benefits of immigration, as a service that so many migrants, from the Windrush generation on, have dedicated their working lives to for the benefit of all. When racists moan that migrants are affecting the health service, we can say with confidence “Yes they do, they make it work!”
Over all, the rally last night gave me hope that Labour can fight back against the Tories, after a gruelling year, because it has the basic arguments that the bulk of the people can identify with. We must strengthen these arguments, wherever and whenever we can, by joining the dots together, to undermine Tory hypocrisy and waste, and expose UKIP’s shallow opportunism.