When he addressed Conference this year, Ed Miliband mentioned the NHS no fewer than 18 times. Despite the criticism he’s received for this speech, most agree that although Labour could and should go further, their plans to increase NHS funding would be a good starting point to sort out our health care system. But today, when thousands of NHS workers have gone on strike over pay, Miliband has, so far, remained silent.
This makes absolutely no sense.
Today’s strike highlights the exact crisis that Miliband has been saying the Labour Party will fix. Nurses, midwives and ambulance workers, alongside other NHS staff, have gone on strike for four hours this morning (this will then be followed by a four-day work-to-rule) because the government has refused to give them a 1% pay rise.
This strike shows the severity of the underfunding crisis in the NHS, and more broadly what the Labour leadership call the cost-of-living crisis – a recent survey found, for instance, that one in five workers have to take second jobs in order to survive. These are crises that Miliband has repeatedly made the focus of his speeches and Labour’s message. It reeks of inconsistency if Labour loudly bang both the NHS and the poverty pay drum when it suits but standby and watch in silence while workers speak out about the realities of working in an underfunded health service.
And, while, they’re at it, Miliband and Balls should also think about how their commitment to public sector pay freezes clashes with their cost-of-living narrative.
In Miliband’s defence, no Labour leader has publicly supported strikes and he hasn’t condemned today’s strike. However, it’s time for a change of tack because Miliband’s silence today also speaks to another significant problem within the Labour party.
This is the first NHS strike in England to take place over pay since Margaret Thatcher was PM, and for the Royal College of Midwives, it’s the first time they’ve gone on strike in their 133-year history. At a time when mainstream parties – including the Labour Party – are charged with providing insufficient hope for the future, this strike offers a further glimpse into the sense of desperation felt by people up and down the country who are struggling to get by. For some, going on strike is one of the only ways to make heard their discontent with the status quo and their desire for change.
To show that Labour understand this sense of despair, Miliband should have been on the picket-line supporting those on strike. Or he could, at the very least take to Twitter to offer his support, without caveats.
Not only would this show some consistency and hope in Labour’s message, it would also be popular amongst the public. Polling carried out by Survation on behalf of Unite show that 61% of people support today’s strike, and 65% think that continuing the 1% pay cap for NHS workers is unfair. With the public on side, supporting the strike is an obvious and natural stance for Miliband to take.
Instead, Miliband’s silence thus far is disappointing and illogical, it speaks directly to the crisis the Labour party are facing: a lack of true conviction. It would do him and the rest of the Labour leadership good to remember that unless you speak out in support of others when it’s clearly the right thing to do, most of what you say will just sound like noise.