On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, junior doctors in England came out on strike once again in defence of their terms and conditions, and in a struggle to save the wider NHS from Tory cuts, attacks, and threats of privatisation.
This time, however, the doctors' action was escalated to an all-out strike, with emergency cover in hospitals covered by more senior doctors. Despite the onslaught of scaremongering from the hostile and vitriolic right-wing press, public support for the junior doctors has remained strong, with an Ipsos Mori / BBC News poll finding that 57% of people still support the medics and their decision to take all-out action. Meanwhile, reports from the picket lines indicated that turnout had been solid.
Despite the spin from the government and the media, it is clear that - across the board - people overwhelming see the blame for this dispute as lying with Jeremy Hunt and the Tories. Indeed, with the Tories facing crisis after crisis, scandal after scandal, it is clear that the government has been severely wounded in recent months and is having to backtrack on many of their plans in the face of growing opposition - both internally (due to splits over Europe) and externally, from actions like that of the junior doctors.
A sense is growing across the labour movement that the Tories can be defeated. Already there have been U-turns over the cuts to disability benefits and the academisation of schools programme. Now it seems like the Tory plans to attacks trade union rights might also be in reverse.
Morale amongst the doctors is high. They have grown in confidence during the course of this struggle, seeing the enormous support from their colleagues in the NHS, from other trade unions, and from the wider public.
The enormous joint demonstration organised between the BMA (the doctors’ union) and the NUT (the teachers’ union) in London on Tuesday 26th April was a vivid vindication of this wide support that exists for the junior doctors. Not only were doctors and teachers out in force, but large contingents of civil servants, university lecturers, and students bolstered the numbers assembling outside St Thomas’ Hospital to around 5,000 - an impressive turnout for 5pm on the weekday.
The short march ended outside the Department of Health (DoH), on Whitehall and opposite Downing Street. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s appearances were greeted warmly, and the Labour leaders emphasised their support for the junior doctors’ struggle and the wider fight to defend the NHS.
Dr Yannis Gourtsoyannis, a leading junior doctor, spoke passionately from the platform, highlighting the necessarily political nature of the struggle and stressing that the real architects of the destruction of the NHS were not in the DoH behind him, but in front in number 10 and 11 Downing Street. It is Cameron and Osborne, Yannis asserted, that are responsible for the crisis in the NHS, due to their vicious austerity programme.
Above all, Yannis emphasised, the junior doctors’ fight has won them support, not lost it, and helped to forge unity between workers, not only within the NHS - amongst doctors, nurses, and other healthcare staff - but across the whole trade union movement. As a recent BBC article even noted, quoting a “government source”: the junior doctors’ struggle has become a focal point for the entire labour movement, an inspiration to all those who are facing the brunt of austerity, and the government is refusing to back down now because they fear of the lesson that it will provide to other workers and trade unionists - if you fight, you will win.
These points were all reiterated by Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS (the civil servants’ union), who made the call for “a day of national action” by trade unionists in defence of the NHS. This is 100% correct.
The TUC should be taking a lead in uniting the various struggles of nurses, teachers, lecturers, firefighters, and others, and calling for a one-day general strike - not only in support of the junior doctors, but against the whole austerity programme of the government and with the aim of kicking out the Tories.
At the same time, Corbyn and McDonnell should take advantage of the Tories’ crisis and demand a snap general election. Like with the miners in 1974, the Labour leaders should be forcing the Tories to offer the public a meaningful referendum by posing the question: who do you support - this government of tax-dodging thieves, or the junior doctors and the wider labour movement that is fighting against austerity?
The Tory government is weak and wounded. It’s time for Corbyn and the leaders of the labour movement to finish them off and kick them out with militant united action and a bold socialist programme.
[Below we provide further reports from other areas]
The local media said 500, but for me there were more like 1,000 jujnior doctors and fellow trade unionists who had turned out at a BMA junior doctors (JDs) rally in front of the Council House in Victoria Square, Birmingham. The Midlands TUC also played its part in helping to organise the rally.
With enthusiasm and defiance they came in all manner of working overalls that identified them as medics. And they did not come alone. There were banners and speakers from Unite, the FBU, Unison, NUT, NASUWT, Community and others.
A large group of medics had also come over from the Walsgrave Hospital in Coventry where the picket that morning had been almost twice the size of previous pickets. They too came with unbounded enthusiasm. An interesting comment was expressed on the Coventry picket line during many conversations about the dispute, the economic crisis, the banking failure of 2008, the increasing division between rich and poor, and the attacks on the public sector such as the NHS. The JDs are rapidly drawing conclusions about the nature of society and the Tories. As one commented, "I and my family voted Tory at the last election. Never again."
Back in Birmingham, Petra Hansen, Midlands Chair of the BMA JDs, spelled out in detail the chilling effects that the newly imposed contract will have not only on patient safety, but also on the private lives of JDs themselves, especially on female JDs, many of whom work part time as they struggle to balance family life with extended shift patterns.
After the rally, hundreds of protesters made their way spontaneously down to the end of pedestrianised New Street to hold another rally and engage with the public and with other medics, as well as to hand out leaflets explaining their case. A strange facet of this dispute is that medics have had the opportunity to meet and talk with other medics, as during their "normal" working lives they don't have such opportunities given the size of hospitals and extended shifts.
The message of the rally was loud and clear: the BMA JDs are not alone. They are fighting against a contract that will put patient safety at risk. They are fighting to defend the NHS. They are fighting on behalf of all who use the NHS. They are fighting for all working class people who use public NHS facilities as they have no choice, unlike the rich in society who can access private healthcare.
The words of solidarity and support expressed by the various speakers must now be translated into action. TUC leaders, along with Jeremy Corbyn, must publicly and vociferously come out in support of the JDs.
If the government does not back down, there is the real possibility of an all-out stoppage, such is the anger and determination of the JDs. In such a situation, the full might of the labour and trade union movement must be brought to bear in the struggle to ensure the victory of the JDs. They cannot stand alone as they are in the forefront of the fight for all of us. It is our NHS and we will all fight to defend it.
Isle of Wight
I was out on the BMA picket line at St Mary's Hospital, on the Isle of Wight this morning and the mood I have to say, is truly magnificent. Public support sounds even stronger now, judging by the hoots from passing cars. The Tories accusing the BMA last night, of trying to bring down the government, for one thing seems to have helped - no better recommendation than that.
I have watched the pickets grow in stature since the early and tentative beginnings of the strike, now they are solid and confident. Tory lies and lies in the capitalist press and on TV, which would once have had a personal impact on the pickets, simply bounce off them now. They are feeling the strength of working class solidarity.
There is active support growing among the Island's population too. Pickets have been invited to speak at the Island's schools and elsewhere, about their strike and many broad based campaigns have asked for information so they too can give similar support.
A Socialist Appeal sympathiser approached me recently and asked if we could organise a solidarity meeting in Newport, the Island's central town. He said he would book and pay for the room and put up the money for printing etc. How can the Junior Doctors possibly lose if they have such warm, willing and wholehearted support among the Island's workers? The Island is not a hotbed of insurrection, but when they get their teeth into an issue watch out!
The Junior Doctors are also getting political. When I asked, they agreed that Jeremy Corbyn was the most honest and decent of all British MPs. That augurs well for the coming elections.
Attitudes are polarising fast and many workers the length and breadth of the country are realising that there is no middle ground any more: you are either with the Tories, or against them and it is Tory anti worker policies which are making them chose. This is equally true among Islanders as among those living on the mainland.
There is a deeper consideration also, a mood of anger is growing among working people and although at present it is finding expression in a wide variety of divided and disparate ways, the realisation is fast dawning that capitalism is failing and the Tories are their enemy. All illusions are being swept aside even by the actions of the Tories themselves. Everything they now do is serving to wake working people up to the coming crisis and the disgusting self interest of the rich.
A terrible anger is brewing, which could easily unleash a wave of strikes, such that a General Strike becomes imminent. We don't know the time scale for this, but the Tories and the ruling class they represent are really terrified. TUC backing for the BMA and the Junior Doctors, could force the Government to play the legal card and withdraw the new contract, through intervention by the Official Solicitor, thus extricating them from a battle they cannot win. The surge in support for this strike and the confidence of the pickets is palpable.
A victory for the Junior Doctors may be the end of Hunt, but not the end of the battle for services - it will simply move to another field. Other health sector workers may soon come under attack, but the lessons provided by the Junior Doctors in their struggle, will be weapons and armour for battles which lie ahead - battles which must put an end to this hated Tory Government.