On Saturday the 14th of March I had the pleasure and honor of joining the People’s March for the NHS Bristol. The march follows the lead of a group of county Durham mums who last year recreated the Jarrow march and trekked 300 miles to London to raise awareness of the creeping privatisation slowly taking over our NHS. We didn’t quiet go the full 300 mile hog, and just marched from College Green to Castle Park (both in the BS1 postcode). Due to the zigzag route we took, maximising our exposure to the public as we went through the main shopping areas, this took about an hour. Still with the aim of the march being to raise awareness, we couldn’t have had a better route. The event could have been pushed harder (it wasn’t advertised until only a few weeks ago), but it was still very well attended, drawing in around 300 people. The march had a very inclusive and lively atmosphere, with a colorful array of banners and placards, a variety of horns and drums, and musical accompaniment provided by the wonderful Bristol Choir.
We managed to get around 30 of our local Green Party members to turn out (which out of a crowd of 300 was about 10% – which seems fairly high) to support this vital campaign. Armed with some hastily prepared ‘brooms of change’ – to ‘sweep the private companies out of our NHS’ and the trusty Bristol Green Party banner we set off on a mini-Green block with the rest of the march at around 11:30 am.
Spirits were high, and we quickly broke into some call and response chants:
“NHS… Not for Sale!”
“Whos NHS?… Our NHS!”
“No ifs, no buts, NO NHS CUTS”
Having cut my teeth on student demonstrations, I struggled with this last chant and repeatedly lapsed into no ifs, no buts, no education cuts. Thankfully no one seemed to notice or mind.
The response from the public seemed extremely positive. No one could not notice hundreds of people marching through the busiest shopping streets of Bristol, carrying banners and singer chants. No one got past without a barrage of leaflets from the numerous groups and organisations supporting the march. Being at the back of the march most people were already weighed down with 3 or 4 different leaflets by the time our Green bloc reached them, but people were so hungry for information that this didn’t present too much of a challenge. On its own terms of raising public awareness the march seem to me to be hugely successful. Our short zigzag route took us through all the main shopping areas in central Bristol exposing thousands of people to our demonstration. The 300 of us, stretched out in a long line, with our placards and horns, made quiet an impact.
I managed to convince my housemate to come along for what turned out to be his first ever protest march. It’s always a pleasure to get to share this experience with someone. He happily remarked on that sense of strength that comes from gathering en mass for collective action like this, and the exhilarating feeling of symbolically reclaiming the streets and forcing the cars away as we march down landmark Bristol roads. These are feelings we all feel, but should remind ourselves of, as they highlight the transformative nature of collective action, and how coming together makes us strong.
When we finally made it to Castle Park around 12:30pm, we were met by some inspiring speeches, and a wonderful NHS rendition of don’t it always seem to be you don’t know what you’ve lost till its gone by the Bristol choir.
As was pressed upon us from the stage, the timing for actions on the NHS couldn’t be more pressing. Last week the largest privatisation deal yet was struck, seeing £780 million worth of diagnosis and treatment services contracted out to 11 different private health firms. This is justified ostensibly by being required to clear a backlog in missed treatment. This backlog was caused predominately by government policies – chiefly cuts to the NHS budget, and to community care (which has forced hospital use up by around 10%), and the loss of 35,000 staff since 2010. The NHS is being starved of resources and stretched to breaking point. It is being set up to fail, so that when it does, that failure can be used to justify more privatisation (the very privatisation that is causing it to fail in the first place). This is the classic tactic of the privateers. Vultures in the form of for profit private health care companies are circling our NHS. Enabled by corrupt politicians, many of whom are benefiting financially from its dissolution, they’re attempting to carve up this most cherished of British institutions. If the marketisation of the NHS continues at its current pace, their will be no recognisable NHS left in another 5 years.
The mainstream media (with a few exceptions… and particularly shockingly from the BBC) have been disgracefully mute on whats going on in the NHS. That’s why marches and campaigns to raise awareness like this one are so critically important. We need to make sure everyone knows whats happening in the NHS if we are to have any chance to save it, and then we have try to convince them to vote accordingly.
As Mike Campbell from the Bristol group Protect Our NHS has laid out the problem: “The coming election is likely to determine whether we have an NHS in five years time, so we would urge everyone to think carefully before they vote. We cannot tell people who to vote for, but we think everyone should be aware that the coalition government has put in place all the structures for a private healthcare system. Can you afford personal health insurance? And can you trust politicians who have sold the hospital records of 47 million NHS patients to insurance companies without our consent?”