We’d prepared well for the day of industrial action in Tower Hamlets. We’d been round to all the practices, making sure they had the patient leaflets we’d printed locally. We leafleted the hospital. We’d ordered our BMA material. We’d debated the action on local GP list server, and at our LMC and BMA division and GP forum meeting, so we knew the action would be well supported. The lunchtime rally in Whitechapel was great – cars tooting support and patients staying away from the surgeries – those coming in were very supportive. Where’s your march, they said. The mood was so different from the distorted headlines in much of the press.
But up and down the country, participation was patchy. There was a gap between the 79% of doctors who voted for action, and those that participated. Had they been persuaded that doctors were paid well enough already? That they had overgenerous pensions compared to the low paid and those in the private sector? That they shouldn’t be taking any action that could harm patients – and that if they were going to strike, it should have been last year over the Health Bill?
I think an explanation is needed about the patchy nature of the protest. In Tower Hamlets, we made the connections very explicit between the action on pensions, and the need to defend the NHS and public services more generally. Many practices had unofficially supported the November 30th public sector pensions strike when around 2 million public sectors workers participated. Our GPs knew they were not taking action just for their own pensions, but because the whole of public sector pensions were under attack, low paid as well as better paid.
We’d rehearsed the arguments that the money for pensions and the NHS is there. The 1,000 individuals on the Sunday Times Rich List have increased their personal wealth by £155 billion in the last three years, so we know the country isn’t broke. It’s not shortage of money but how it’s distributed that’s the problem.
Accept austerity and you end up like Greece.
We also debated at the rally the links between the attack on pensions and the NHS Act with its roller coaster of privatisation. As Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury said, “the new pensions will be substantially more affordable to alternative providers.” In Tower Hamlets we understood these connections.
So, BMA, I’d like to make a plea.
We need more action on pensions. But to win, we need to do two things.
First, link up in coordinated action with the other public sector trade unions.
Second, our tactics need to be more imaginative, actions that don’t harm patients should include withdrawal from certain commissioning activities.
If we make the connections, doctors will have more confidence to participate.
Dr Kambiz Boomla is a GP in Tower Hamlets and City& East London LMC Chair