Thousands march to defend Whittington Hospital

Thousands of local residents in Camden and Islington came out onto the streets to save the Whittington Hospital from a devastating programme of cuts and sell offs on Saturday. James Drummond reports.

Around 5,000 local people took to the streets of Islington on 16 March to protest against planned cutbacks at the Whittington Hospital. If the Whittington Health Trust Board gets its way, these cutbacks could mean:

  • Selling six blocks to unspecified buyers to raise an estimated £17m;
  • A complete loss of staff accommodation in one of London’s most expensive boroughs;
  • A reduction in maternity services, with a cap of 4,000 births per year;
  • Axing a possible 230 beds, including elderly and new inpatient beds;
  • A loss of 570 hospital workers’ jobs.

The Health Trust Board argues that a reduction in services is needed and that many patients are best cared for in the ‘community’. However, as one local campaigner noted, “The hospital’s board argues people don’t want to be in hospital, but privatised community care with insufficient time to treat their patients is not the answer….. This is symptomatic of the government’s cuts to our health services and must be fought”.

Islington also has one of the highest rates of health inequality in the country, and it is not exactly clear how slashing jobs and beds will help to improve things.

'Keep the cat purring' - the Hospital takes its name (and logo!) from the story of Dick Whittington and his cat. Photos: Jim Jepps

‘Keep the cat purring’ – the Hospital takes its name (and logo! See top picture) from the story of Dick Whittington and his cat. Photo: Jim Jepps

This sentiment was very much in evidence on the march.

Not only did thousands of people brave the miserable March weather, but the breadth of the protest was impressive. Whilst the BBC reported “up to 1,500 people”, local ITV news estimated around 5,000, a much more realistic figure. There were local trade union banners and flags from Unite, the GMB, the NUT, UCU and Unison. Older people, disabled people, and parents and young children joined the march. As we progressed along Holloway Road, cars, lorries and buses tooted their horns and local people hung banners of support from their windows.

Rebuilding confidence

Whilst most marchers were obviously determined that these cutbacks should be scrapped, they also no doubt had in mind the fact that previous plans to close the hospital’s Accident and Emergency (A&E) department were shelved in 2010 after a march of 10,000 local people.

Give this history, the potential is clearly there for a victory, and for mobilising similar numbers of people. However, this recent protest comes after almost three years of Conservative austerity and the decline of union militancy after the sell-out of the pensions’ dispute last year. Rebuilding people’s confidence to fight after these defeats is the key task for activists today. It is significant that Saturday’s march took place at the same time as a march to defend fire services in south London, as well as protests up and down the country against the Bedroom Tax.

Camden resident Colin Ball, better known as Trigger from Only Fools and Horses, is a longstanding supporter of the anti-cuts movement. Photo: Jim Jepps

Camden resident Colin Ball, better known as Trigger from Only Fools and Horses, is a longstanding supporter of the anti-cuts movement. Photo: Jim Jepps

What was especially noteworthy at the Whittington Hospital demo was the fact that, as well as the unions and the socialist left, the local Labour Party and Green Party were very visible, with a surprising number of people wearing ‘Vote Labour’ stickers and even sporting rosettes. This is no doubt due to the fact that local Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn is one of the few left-wing Labour MPs left in existence, and has opposed the leadership of his party both in government and in opposition. Similarly, it is very easy for the Green Party to oppose cuts when they don’t wield any power – as they do in Brighton, where they are dutifully implementing cuts to the council budget.

The campaigning undertaken by local Labour Party and Green Party activists on this issue is no doubt sincere. To that extent, radical anti-capitalists can work with them. But we should also not shirk from discussing with these activists the tactics that we need to win.

Fighting to win

Given this scenario, petitions and marches are clearly a start, and we should build support for these. We should be aware, however, that ultimately more militant tactics may be needed. If we are to succeed in defending the Whittington, to defeat similar plans at Lewisham Hospital and to defend the NHS in its entirety, then health workers need to take action, including – but by no means restricted to – strike action. Health workers at the Whittington need to be raising the spectre of picket lines now. And if they go ahead with the planned closures we should add to this the tactic of occupying wards and staff accommodation to prevent their closure.

Occupy Holloway Road! Photo: Jim Jepps

Occupy Holloway Road! Photo: Jim Jepps

The way to escalate the campaign is not for anti-capitalists to lecture health workers and community campaigners, or to point out at every opportunity that they’re ‘wrong’, or that ‘we’ know best. The precise tactics to be adopted in the campaign will require an intimate knowledge of the hospital, the local community, and the details and timings of the proposals. Activists will therefore need to listen, and not lecture.

Strikes and occupations may not be palatable to some, but such action would no doubt spark a wave of support and solidarity, despite the inevitable media hostility, and not least despite opposition from many Unison officials, who have up to now played a scandalous role in witch-hunting members of their own union who want to fight. We may be a million miles away from replicating the action of health workers in Greece, who occupied their hospital and ran it under workers’ control last year, but we at least need to point out that there are alternatives to A-to-B marches – and that at some point, these alternatives will be absolutely essential in order to defend our NHS.

The march to defend the Whittington this time around showed the potential is there. The message was clear, ‘Whittington Hospital not for sale’.

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