By Tim Hardy
Last night’s Save Our NHS rally left me feeling quite depressed.
It seemed significant that hundreds were locked out of the meeting when, in an increasingly familiar pattern, a church closed its doors to protesters. The feeder march arrived about 20 minutes after the rally began and those who had been on it were forced to wait in the drizzle, unseen and unheard, until slowly people began to dissipate.
Eventually some, including myself, were able to get in because significant numbers were leaving early, bored by words that were well meaning but not going anywhere.
Once inside, the atmosphere of solidarity and pride in the NHS was intense. But practical suggestions were few and far between.
The best speeches were by NHS workers not union leaders or politicians. Clive Peedell stood out as someone who promised to actually do something as he explained how he was going to continue the tactics of Bevan’s run in a last-ditch attempt to win Liberal Democrat support. The passion of his conviction was magnetic.
“This bill will bring back fear to the lives of the most frail and vulnerable in our society,” he warned.
Len McCluskey watered down recent controversy, then talked a good talk, as always, before disappearing to a pub round the corner.
Andy Burnham gave a good speech and repeated his promise to reverse the bill if Labour won the next election – but this is a promise that Ed Miliband has conspicuously refused to endorse or repeat.
Social Democrat Lord Owen’s reception was initially hostile because of his association with Clegg’s party – “I’ve never been a liberal” he snapped at one heckler – but he won polite applause in places. Patrick Wintour’s claim that Owen’s speech “went down a storm tonight” is a far stretch but the Guardian’s political editor is otherwise spot on in his bleak summary of the options left to opponents of the Health and Social Care bill.
The sole Liberal Democrat to brave the crowd, MP Andrew George, was invited as an opponent of the bill who has consistently voted against it. Nonetheless, he got a taste of how reviled his party has become and his speech was hardly conciliatory. After several attempts to blame “the mess Labour left us” caused him to be shouted down, he made a speech in which he spoke of the government as though it was nothing to do with him. He told the crowd that it was too late and there was nothing that could be done to stop the bill before he was finally heckled off stage, muttering “Shouting at us isn’t going to achieve much.”
Both Owen and Burnham pointed out that the coalitions’ behaviour was “a constitutional outrage”. Perhaps, this fact alone will be enough to inspire grassroots activists to resist the calls to vote for Shirley Williams and Nick Clegg’s alternative motion that claims Lib Dems have done enough and vote instead for the emergency motion to drop the bill at their Gateshead conference this weekend. This does not guarantee the government will drop the bill but it will increase the pressure.
What price another defeat? If we lose one more element of our society to the asset-strippers of the Conservative Party it is going to be extremely hard if not impossible to win it back. Labour failed to rebuild the council houses Thatcher sold off or give unions back the powers she stole; eventually Miliband, standing in front of a blue rosette, claimed she’d been right to do so.
I hope I am wrong but last night’s rally felt too timid and too late.