It’s not every year that the first day of a party conference is met by 60,000 activists, marching in opposition to a single political issue. But, as the famously astute (yet famously ineffectual) Chancellor Nigel Lawson drily observed – “The NHS is the closest thing that the English have to a religion”.
On Sunday 29th September, thousands of NHS worshippers (including two coach-loads from York & District TUC) brought central Manchester to a stand-still. Hordes of trade unionists, health workers, students and activists converged on the city, to protest the Tories’ dismantling by stealth of the greatest of all British institutions; the NHS. A blatant privatisation in all but name – an Orwellian “reform” offering patient “choice” and “efficiency” (always truly terrifying words when uttered from Conservative lips) – this was always going to be an issue that would bring people on to the streets.
And bring people out it certainly did. With a line of tightly-packed union contingents close to a mile long, it took more than half an hour before the march could even set off. The range of campaigners was unusually broad; apart from the predicted mass of branded union flags arranged in traditional block formation, there were young teens with cardboard placards and personalised slogans daubed in red paint; hunt saboteurs with black flags on which were sleek red foxes, and an incessantly loud (and very blue) contingent of students from Manchester University – proudly reclaiming a colour that, for far too long, has been associated with a political ideology that most students don’t particularly like very much.
There was an element of celebration – a celebration that after 60 years, one of the few remaining achievements of post-War socialism has still not been truly broken, because the people just refuse to let go of it. As the students put it on one of their placards – “Private Health Service – it just sounds crap.” Indeed it does. But there was also a sense of urgency; a feeling that the oiled-up wheels are already well in motion, that the US “healthcare” giants are already circling like vultures looking for a pick of the Health Service buck – and that, despite the overwhelming opposition of a huge majority of the electorate, the Government are quite prepared to press ahead with their “reforms” without so much as a blink – no matter what 60,000 lefties marching on a Sunday afternoon might think. In York, which has this last week seen the announcement of the closure of a mental health unit, we are only just beginning to see the effects of this push for “choice” and “efficiency” – because there is sure to be a great deal more of it coming our way.
What was more baffling – and if you think about it, also a little disturbing – was the shameful lack of media coverage of such a massive demonstration. This was probably the largest Manchester has ever seen, and although it was adequately covered by the local press, the lack of a national media presence was noticeable – and surprising. Considering some of the “trouble” at TUC demos in the past, most notably March 26th 2011, a big media presence was fully expected. Yet the reality was quite different – BBC News uttered a few cursory remarks about a “peaceful protest” before swiftly moving back to its headline report on the shut-down of the US Government. There was barely a mention in the mainstream Left-wing press – including The Guardian – let alone the gutter tabloids, who for the last few weeks have been far more occupied with the issue of whether a late Marxist academic “hated Britain” or not.
Some activist groups, infuriated by the BBC’s almost non-existent coverage, have flooded the BBC with complaints and – somewhat predictably – received the same carbon-copy response – “The event was covered – during all news slots”. Well – yes, that’s true. But they didn’t report the six-foot high ring of steel protecting the precious elite from the wrath of NHS workers and their families – hardly unexpected, of course, that only the Tory Party conference would need that sort of extra protection from “breaches of security”. In one of the most ironic events of the day, BBC correspondent Norman Smith tweeted that he had been “prevented” from filming the demo from inside the Tories’ Fort Knox compound – by, as it turned out – G4S. Ironic, because if the Tories ever did get round to privatising our police force, this company – an outfit that has in the past seemed to specialise in “losing” prisoners on a disturbingly regular basis – would probably be right at the front of the queue. But shocking in that the BBC didn’t even see fit to report the blatant censorship of one of their own.
What a comparison this all was to the huge TUC demo in March a few years ago, when we saw a swathe of rampaging anarchists running through Oxford Street attacking the Ritz, high street banks and other symbols of indifferent affluence – in the midst of a crippling austerity imposed on ordinary people. Violence, it appears, seems to be the only news that certain elements of the corporate media are only really interested in these days. In adopting this tendency, they are playing a dangerous game. The overwhelming majority of ordinary people in this country are peaceful and law-abiding – and realise only too well that extreme violence and disorder on the streets is counter-productive – haven’t we lost enough civil rights over the last 20 years on the back of perceived ideas about terrorism and “threats of disorder” to know that we shouldn’t give the Government further excuse to take even more? Yet it seems that, if there is no “disorder” on TUC marches these days – then the major media are just not interested.
But what is true is that 60,000 ordinary people – who are representative of a great deal more than that – can’t be ignored – and nor should they be, least of all by the professional arbiters of journalism, whose ideas of a free press are supposed to underpin the very principles of our democracy. The advance of instant and independent media – and the lightning spread of ideas – makes any ignorance on the part of the corporate media redundant, because it is they who are becoming redundant. Those who oppose the sell-off of our National Health Service, whether the corporate media report on them or not, are not going to go away – and the electorate, who already think that the Government is not being honest on this issue – let alone right and responsible, are equally furious. That is something that both the Government and the corporate media will just have to come to terms with, and preferably sooner rather than later.