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BLAIR AND HIS POLICIES CHALLENGED BY REVOLT IN PARLIAMENT
by Daphne Liddle
PRIME MINISTER Tony Blair last Wednesday came nearer to defeat in the House of Commons vote on foundation hospitals. Tories and Liberal Democrats joined Labour rebels in opposing the Health and Social Care Bill.
In the event, a quarter of Labour MPs either voted against the Bill or abstained. This is he Bill’s second reading and it was passed with a majority of just over 70 votes. It still has a long way to go and could well be defeated before it gets to the final stage.
The Bill would set up elite hospitals with the freedom to borrow money and act virtually as independent companies, selling services and engaging in commercial enterprises.
They would have had power to attract resources and staff from other local hospitals, which would then be locked into a downward spiral of deterioration.
It is the sort of measure the Tories would normally support completely. But sensing Blair’s vulnerability, they decided to vote against.
Blair’s complacency that he could always count on the opposition to back him against back-bench rebels has left him out on a limb now they have decided not to play the game.
It would have been unprecedented for a Prime Minister with such a large majority to lose a House of Commons vote. Even though he won, this has still been a big set back.
We must continue to exert all possible pressure to oust him.
The unions have consistently opposed this Health and Social Care Bill, which would lead to a two-tier NHS.
The TUC met before the vote with leaders of health service unions. They issued a statement opposing foundation hospitals.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber told the press: “The health unions support the development of a more flexible, responsive and innovative NHS that can deliver higher standards of care to meet the needs of patients.
“But unions have not been convinced that foundation hospitals will deliver the improvements we all want to see.
“Instead these proposals have provoked fears that a coherent NHS will be undermined by the injection of more market processes that will exacerbate rather than diminish inequalities in health provision.
“None of the normal consultative processes took place before these proposals emerged in the current Bill. The Government failed to consult through a Green Paper or White Paper.
The giant public sector union Unison, which represents thousands of NHS workers, urged MPs to vote against the Bill.
“Foundation hospital status is a diversion from delivering improvements to the whole of the NHS and should be opposed,” a UNISON press release said.
Health Secretary Alan Milburn, in an effort to head off the rebel votes, had promised an extra £200 million to bring all hospitals up to foundation status within five years. This would still leave them in competition with each other, with some gaining at the expense of others.
Unison head of heath Karen Jennings said: “If hospitals need an extra £200 million to improve, why not just give it to them?
“This amount of money is a drop in the ocean for the health service and just looks like a bribe to buy off opposition from MPs. There are principles at stake that cannot be bought off. And they are about the best possible National Health Service and the best possible hospitals for all the people.
“It doesn’t matter how many times the Health Secretary says that it won’t create a two-tier health service, he cannot escape from the facts.
“Foundation hospitals will act like a magnet drawing away scarce staff and making recruitment and retention more difficult for neighbouring hospitals.”
Blair and Milburn have been peddling the old Tory lie about increasing patient choice.
This may work for those who have chauffeur-driven limousines to waft them over long distances in perfect comfort when they are ill and in need of care.
Most patients are too ill or elderly to drive themselves to hospital – or do not have cars anyway. They have to rely on public transport to get to hospital, often travelling in great discomfort. Their hospital of choice is always going to be the nearest one, as Labour MP Jim Dowd pointed out during the debate.
Those who arrive by ambulance as emergencies have even less choice as to where they are taken.
Before the debate, 130 Labour MPs had signed a motion opposing foundation hospitals.
Labour chairperson David Hinchliffe said on Radio Four: “This is directly contrary to everything the Labour Party has stood for since it created he NHS in 1948.
“This is a Conservative policy, the internal market all over again. This is the competitive ethos I thought we had been elected to get rid of.”
Even before the vote, international hospital management firms were circling like vultures, ready for a profit frenzy.
The Swedish health group Capio and Interhealth Canada had been shortlisted to run chains of privately managed surgery centres, which would form a permanent tier of the NHS.
This would open the NHS – with a potential market worth £75 billion – to international competition for the first time. This is the agenda of the World Bank and international finance imperialism – and the reason that Blair is ready to defy his party, the unions and the electorate.
He knows who his real masters are. Well they can have him because we don’t want him. It’s time for Blair, and his policies, to go.
Getting rid of the stooges of international finance imperialism will be a longer and harder job than just getting rid of Blair. Nevertheless, unseating this particular stooge will be a step in the right direction and boost all our morale for the rest of the battle.
The campaigning Scottish MP has been suspended from the Labour Party for taking the principled stand over the Iraq war. His outspoken attacks on this unjust and illegal war have apparently breached Rule A8 by bringing the “the Labour Party into disrepute by behaviour that is prejudicial or grossly detrimental to the party” – a rule which was not invoked in the cases of the far more prominent Peter Mandelson or Geoffrey Robinson.
Galloway’s “crime” has been his long-standing and consistent support for Palestinian rights and the Iraqi people. While other press allegations will eventually be dealt with when Galloway’s libel action is heard in the High Court this suspension will be the matter of an internal Labour Party investigation.
The Labour leadership wants George Galloway out and it wants to make an example of him to head off the growing challenge to the Blair and the war party. George Galloway enjoys the full support of his constituency Labour Party not to mention the millions of Labour supporters who opposed the invasion of Iraq.
Blair & Co should reflect on last week’s regional, Welsh and Scottish parliamentary elections and the failure of other attempts to suspend or expel prominent critics of Blair’s Way. George Galloway deserves the support of the entire labour movement. Blair’s the one who should be kicked out, not Galloway.
Remember Walter Sisulu
We pause this week to remember one of the giants of the African liberation struggle who passed away on Monday. Walter Sisulu was one of the great leaders of the African National Congress (ANC); a man who dedicated his entire life to the struggle for freedom for South Africa.
Sisulu’s life mirrored the South African peoples’ struggle against colonialism and racism. He was born in 1912, the year the ANC was founded. His family were peasants, in his teens he worked in the gold mines and factories and he was rapidly drawn into the struggle for union rights. In 1940 he joined the ANC taking leading roles in the industrial and political struggles of the oppressed majority in South Africa. Sisulu promoted and defended the revolutionary alliance between the national liberation movement, the communist party and the trade union movement to lead the resistance to the apartheid regime in the following decades.
He defied persecution, banning orders and imprisonment in the struggle which led to his final arrest and imprisonment on Robben Island together with Nelson Mandela and the other freedom-fighters. Sisulu spent 25 years in prison but he lived to see the end of the racist regime. Released in 1989 Sisulu took part in the ANC’s negotiations which led to the end of apartheid and the country’s first free elections, which swept the ANC to power.
The dedication and sacrifice of Walter Sisulu and the others of his generation was an inspiration to all those who followed. He will always be remembered for his courage and dedication to the cause of national liberation.
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