We are facing the end of the NHS, as the Lords vote through the Health and Social Care Bill. The NHS was born out of Old Labour’s triumphant 1948 manifesto, which demanded a “land fit for heroes”, in the wake of the devastation caused by the Second World War.
In the manifesto, the great socialist Aneurin Bevan brought his experience in the South Wales valleys, of a local system of communal healthcare, on to the national stage. The result was the National Health Service. Free prescriptions, free dentistry, free opticians – all paid for through central taxation. With the introduction of prescription charges, Bevan had the principles to resign his position. If only we had opposition Labour politicians with a fraction of his foresight, determination and courage today.
The Tories, along with many Labour right-wingers and many doctors were against the introduction of the NHS. It was mass protests of ordinary people, and the lessons of the First World War, with the threat of revolution and the General Strike of 1926, as soldiers in particular backed the left wing Labour government over Churchill. This heralded the introduction of the NHS, amid a fear by the ruling class that a revolutionary movement could return to Britain, unless something radical was done to improve conditions for the poor.
Labour sought to slay five “giants” – “ignorance, squalor, want, disease and idleness” – deliberately evoking traditional English imagery of Jack the Giant Killer, to the soundtrack of Jerusalem. Blake’s great poem was unfortunately put to patriotic music around the time of the 1st world war and actually is not a right-wing verse. Blake would be turning in his grave if he knew how his work has been mistreated by the far right.
Fast forward 60 years, and the gap between rich and poor is greater than ever – the giants are still stalking the land and the monumental gains of 1948 – the welfare state, our NHS, nationalisation of major industries and utilities – have all either been consigned to the history books or are under threat.
Because of the failures of New Labour and their craven betrayal of the working class, the far right are still present, bringing with them the threat of fascism. The far right are fighing not just against Muslims, who have been scapegoated for the problems of Britain, just as Jews were in Nazi Germany, but also against those who are trying to fight for a better society. Threats have been made to those in the Occupy movement, against trade unionists and against socialists.
Our mainstream politicans (Labour, Tories, Lib Dems) are all corrupt. They slavishly follow the bidding of lobbyists paid for by the interests of big business. They are slashing pensions and jobs, because they see that workers organised in trade unions can pose a threat to their plans. The argument that the country’s debt is out of control and needs to be kept in check, that these cuts are necessary is a disingenuous lie. Public sector pension funds, for example, were renegotiated in 2008 to be affordable for the next 50 years. The only thing that has changed since then is the banking crisis, caused by inherent contradictions in capitalism. But the Con-Dems are asking ordinary people to pay the price for this mess.
Since the magnificent demonstrations and strikes of November 30th, unfortunately some trade union leaders have de-escalated the strike action. This is a fight for everything we care about in our society, and we need to increase pressure on the government. Private sector workers should join the fight as well and join trade unions. If their leadership is incapable of leading the struggle, it needs to be ditched. France had a general strike in 2010 over a pension age increase from 60 to 62. We deserve union leaders who will not back down so easily. Their members will not forgive those who sold out.
There are reasons, in the teeth of these attacks on our class, to be optimistic. People will be forced into struggle. However, the conditions which raise the consciousness of the working class and cause some of them to demand socialist answers to their problems, can also cause the rise of support for far-right ideas. Unless we build a new mass party, on a democratic, principled opposition to all the cuts, to attract those looking for an alternative, then people can be drawn to the blind alleys of racism or rioting, as seen in the summer of 2011.
This is why I support TUSC, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, which is standing in the London Assembly and in many local elections in May to offer a real, fighting alternative for working people.