By KD Tait Wednesday's strike saw 20,000 junior doctors leave the frontline of the NHS and join the picket lines of the BMA in a campaign to stop the government imposing unsafe new contracts.
The action will pile on the pressure after four out of five junior doctors joined Tuesday’s first all-out strike in NHS history.
At some London trusts, almost 90 per cent of junior doctors walked out, with thousands joining a demonstration with the teachers’ union in the afternoon.
The escalation of the strike comes after two previous strikes, which enjoyed widespread public support, failed to bring the government to the negotiating table.
The junior doctors and the BMA are opposed to contracts that would, among other things, remove financial penalties designed to stop hospital managers making doctors work dangerously long hours, discriminate against women, and cut antisocial hours pay.
Jeremy Hunt accused the BMA of engaging in a “political strike”. He’s right, though only in the sense that the doctors are opposed to Hunt's political agenda. Hunt is determined to defeat the doctors as an example to all trade unionists. The intransigence of the government is motivated by the need to rip up terms and conditions as a prelude to wider marketisation of the NHS.
Make no mistake this is a political struggle; one over the very existence of a universal health service, free at the point of use, introduced by Labour in 1948.
If imposed, the junior doctors contracts are not the thin end of the wedge; they are the thick end that will be used to shatter every other NHS worker’s conditions.
The government wants to turn people against the doctors by claiming that the dispute is about pay and that the government has a mandate to create a “seven day NHS”.
The reality is that the Tories oversaw a 60 per cent rise in unfilled junior doctor posts between 2013-15. Now they want to make the NHS stretch five days’ funding over seven days.
But Jeremy Hunt isn’t incompetent. The Tory strategy is straightforward and shameless. They want to run the NHS into the ground to the point where they can - literally - sell privatisation as a solution to an artificial crisis manufactured in Conservative HQ.
To their credit the BMA and the junior doctors have called their bluff and exposed them. That’s why Cameron has backed Hunt to the hilt. These millionaire children of Thatcher want their own ‘Miners’ Strike’ to break the doctors’ union, demoralise the NHS workforce and pave the way for full privatisation.
The junior doctors’ strikes are just the latest demonstration of why collective action by workers is the most effective way to stop the government’s attacks. The doctors’ have led the way; support from other workers could force the government to abandon its reckless reforms. All the health unions should ballot for action and not leave the BMA to fight alone.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis, whose union represents half a million NHS and healthcare workers across the UK, said yesterday “we will take on this government, stand shoulder to shoulder with junior doctors in this fight and we will win.”
But fighting talk won’t budge the government unless it is backed up by meaningful action. They know Prentis’ record all too well. Unison didn’t call a single national strike or demonstration when Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act opened up the NHS to the profiteers. Prentis hasn’t given Jeremy Hunt a single sleepless night or delivered improved pay and conditions for Unison members.
It won’t be easy to get the union leaders to join a political confrontation with the government. But the NHS is an issue that affects all workers, so the joint letter from PCS and FBU calling on the TUC to call a national day of action is a welcome initiative.
Experience shows us that only coordinated pressure from union members can ensure that the union leaders aren’t given free rein to do too little, too late.
The appearance of Labour leaders Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell on doctors’ picket lines and demonstrations is a lesson in leading by example.
Unfortunately it seems they remain unable to induce members of the shadow cabinet to follow this example. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander’s called for the new contract to be “piloted in a number of trusts”, a proposal backed by the BMA leadership. But this was was unhelpful and calculated to end the strike and dissipate the resistance.
Corbyn and McDonnell’s support on the picket line and at the marches is of course a big step forward from Blair, Brown and Miliband, who would have condemned the strike and urged the doctors to return to work. This shows that the Labour Party still remains integrally linked to the labour movement and shows the potential for what could be achieved if Labour took a leading and not just a supportive role, mobilising a mass popular campaign to repeal Lansley’s Act and drive the profiteers out of the NHS altogether.
Of course the government rejected the BMA and Alexander’s proposal out of hand. They recognise, as do most of the junior doctors, the decisive nature of the confrontation which is unfolding. If the Labour shadow cabinet and the national Executive are serious about defending their predecessors’ historic achievement, they should stop prevaricating and demand not just negotiations but the unconditional abandonment of the new contracts altogether.
Labour should demand the launch of a massive programme of training and recruitment of doctors, nurses, ancillary workers; not the Tories horrible plan to lure more doctors from India and other countries with far weaker health services than ours.
We should urge Jeremy and John to persuade many of their MPs to familiarise themselves with labour movement principles of solidarity. Labour members are only too well aware of the responsibility that previous Labour governments share for the NHS’s current crisis. Many individuals who supported the creation of the internal market remain MPs and are implacably hostile to both Corbyn and the new Labour membership.
But the connection between the Labour Party and the trade unions provides the best opportunity to build a genuinely mass, popular opposition to Tory cuts, rooted in workplaces and communities. The biggest obstacle to this are the timid, bureaucratic leaderships of the trade unions, who share a common interest the Blairites in the PLP in preserving their control over the working class’ struggles.
We need to break free of this by organising within the Labour Party and the trade unions for a radical change in strategy. We can start by agitating for national strike action to defend the NHS and working to ensure that Labour policy is brought into line with the support this would have in the labour movement.