Ellen Wilkinson is a name that’s probably unfamiliar to many outside of Manchester or the north east of England. Ellen’s story is not the sort of history that gets taught in schools and colleges. Mainstream history tends to confine itself to wars, royalty and the pillaging of foreign lands rather than the struggle for the rights of ordinary folk. Especially when that struggle is lead by women. Red Ellen was a fierce campaigner for feminism and socialism and one of the first women to be elected to Parliament at a time when women under the age of thirty were still unable to vote. In 1936, with eighty per cent of people out of work in her Jarrow constituency, in the north east of England, Wilkinson organised a march of unemployed workers from Jarrow to London where she presented a petition to Parliament.
Nearly eighty years on and another female-fronted march from Jarrow arrived in London last Saturday. The People’s March for the NHS was organised by the “Darlo mums”, a group of ordinary working mothers from Darlington dismayed at the dismantling of our beloved National Health Service. The three hundred mile march from Jarrow took them twenty two days and followed the route of the original Jarrow marchers through the heart of the country. It joined the dots of many local campaigns against cuts and closures of NHS services in the likes of Calderdale and Huddersfield in West Yorkshire and Hammersmith and Fulham in West London.
I joined the march for its final mile-long leg from Red Lion Square in Central London and there was applause from bystanders and the supportive tooting of horns from motorists as thousands marched down The Strand and poured into Trafalgar Square for a rally to mark the end of the march. Estimates of the number on this final leg varied from five thousand to twenty thousand but irrespective of the exact number it was a mighty fine turnout.
In Trafalgar Square we listened to speeches by the likes of the writer and journalist Owen Jones, the leader of the National Health Action Party Clive Peedell, the musician and campaigner Billy Bragg and several Labour MPs including the shadow health secretary Andy Burnham who reiterated his promise to reverse the Health and Social Care Act if Labour wins next year’s election. But the square was lit up later on by an electrifying speech by Joanna Adams, the Darlo mum whose idea it was to stage the march. She’d been on telly earlier in the day in a brief interview on the BBC’s breakfast programme but sadly there were no television cameras present to witness a brilliant, impassioned address. As with the huge Gaza rally a few weeks before the BBC prefered to ignore those exercising their democratic right to protest.
For more than ten minutes Jo ripped into a speech that crackled with passion for the NHS and anger at the politicians who have failed to protect it. The marchers were not aligned to any political party she said, it was down to us, the people, to stand up and protect the NHS from the capitalists. “The NHS is owned by us, loved by us and can only be saved by us” was the message on the marchers’ t-shirts. The march may have ended but the fight for the NHS is only just beginning.
The speech tapped into a sense of huge disappointment with politicians and a feeling that they cannot be trusted when it comes to preserving the NHS. Yes, Labour have condemned the damage caused by the Health and Social Care Act and the privatisation of the NHS, but in power they presided over the further marketisation of the health service and the expansion of the Private Finance Inititaive that has left so many hospitals with shiny new buildings but crippling debts. This feeling of mistrust was echoed at the National Health Action Party’s annual conference the following day at London’s historic Conway Hall. The party was formed in 2012 and, like the People’s March for the NHS, is a grassroots movement aiming to stop the demolition of the NHS.
The NHAP aims to stand a candidate in next year’s general election in the seat of every MP that voted in favour of the Health and Social Care Act in 2012. The conference saw the unveiling of the party’s first batch of parliamentary candidates and they all made short speeches setting out their views and reasons for standing. Several smiled apologetically for being inexperienced at public speaking but, like the Darlo mums, their passion for the NHS shone through and it was refreshing to hear people speak without recourse to the buzzwords and stock phrases that litter much modern day political discourse.
Joanna Adams’ speech concluded with the words “socialism is neither dead nor a dirty word and some politicians would do well to remember that”. It was a timely reminder that whilst most Labour MPs are keen to avoid any references to the s-word for fear of scaring off the voters of Middle England, the NHS is an example of socialism in action and proof, if it were needed, that it is possible to organise society so that compassion comes before competition and people are valued more highly than profits. The NHS stands proud as the symbol of a caring and civilised society. It’s why so many Tory MPs dislike the NHS and are happy to see it flogged off to the private sector.
Next May will see perhaps the most important general election of our lifetimes for the NHS. If the Tories win a majority it will mark the end of the NHS as we know it, as a comprehensive national health service, free at the point of access and one that puts patients before profits. The evidence is all around us that the dismantling of the health service has already begun. Since April of last year over £13 billion of NHS services have been put up for grabs with over seventy per cent of these contracts going to the private sector. Meanwhile ten per cent of GP surgeries are now run by private providers. This is happening, often quietly, as companies like Virgin, Circle and Serco win contracts but continue to use the trusted and familiar NHS logo.
This matters because privatisation fragments care and diverts funds away from healthcare in the form of profits. Companies aim to maximise profits and often cream off the more profitable elements of services, leaving the more complex and costly services to the NHS. There was no democratic mandate for this privatisation, no party campaigned in favour of dismantling the NHS at the last election. Between now and the general election in May next year we have an opportunity to show our support for the health service that was recently labelled as the best in the world by the respected Commonwealth Fund. Too often, we take it for granted that the NHS will be there when we need it and that we won’t have to reach for the credit card to pay for our healthcare. But not anymore, we’re in real danger of losing the health service that the post-war generation fought so hard to establish.
I salute the Darlo mums. Red Ellen Wilkinson would have been proud of every single one of them. Let’s join them in their fight to save the NHS.