Saturday I attended the AGM of Keep Our NHS Public. One of the issues which was discussed was the possibility of KONP standing candidates in elections. This debate elicited the response from a representative of UNITE (which is an affiliate and financial supporter of KONP) that if it did take such a step then the union would have to withdraw its support from the campaign. The issue will be discussed by the Steering Committee this week.
My own view is that if such a step were to be proposed then it would have to be the subject of a specially convened meeting of members and affiliates of the campaign. However, launching KONP into the electoral arena would be a mistake, for a number of reasons. Foremost of these is that the withdrawal of the Labour affiliated unions would block the direct involvement of their branches and inhibit the involvement of staff who work in the NHS. A decision to launch into electoral activity would be a gift, in particular to Dave Prentis and the UNISON apparatus which has effectively boycotted KONP, and would immediately move to ban any of its branches from supporting the campaign.
The low turn out at the AGM AGM underlined the need for the campaign to build an active base of support amongst NHS workers, of whom there were very few present. The discussion which took place on how a socialised health service should be organised reinforces the need to involve health service workers in campaigning to end privatisation and the ‘health market’ and to develop practical plans for an NHS from which competition and the profit motive are driven out. Campaigning for a socially owned NHS requires the active involvement of health workers if KONP is to develop beyond the limits of small numbers of health campaigners and health professionals.
The contempt which supporters of the NHS hold for New Labour is entirely understandable given the dire impact of its health service ‘reforms’. Whilst there is a great deal of frustration with the Labour affiliated unions amongst campaigners (for instance, they will have seen the spectacle of a UNISON delegate telling the last Labour conference that the NHS was ‘safe in the government’s hands) a decision to turn KONP into a ‘political party’ – it would have to formerly register as such to stand candidates in its name – would offer a gift to those union leaders who would like to isolate KONP and stop their members being involved in it.
There is nothing to stop campaigners within KONP organising electoral campaigns where this is agreed locally, but they should not use the KONP name. A decision to do so would probably also lead to the departure of some of the people who are currently involved in the campaign.
Surely what is essential about the campaign is that it aims to mobilise all those who are opposed to privatisation and marketisation irrespective of their party or political affiliations. Instead of uniting people to defend the NHS and reverse the government’s ‘reforms’ if KONP itself enters into the electoral fray it would narrow the base of support of the campaign at a time when we desperately need to widen it.