It might have, literally, been a damp squib given the heavy rain that started pouring just as people were due to assemble at Highbury corner. Add in Archway tube being closed and Arsenal playing (albeit away) and there were plenty of excuses for people not to turn up. But that would be to underestimate the passion local people feel about the Whittington, and the way the campaign to save it has gained genuine across-the-board support.
That support is something we’ve certainly found on the doorstep. On Monday I was at Downing Street handing in the first 2,000 signatures from our Save the Whittington petition. The petition is still open for signatures, and given the 5,000 folk on the march, there’s plenty more to come.
The people I met on the march were an amazing range. Yes, there were some of the usual suspects, ‘rent-a-trots’ who go on a different demo every week. Much more there were ordinary folk from Islington and beyond who use the Whittington and don’t want to see it downgraded. There was David, currently a cancer patient at the Whittington, poorly, but determined to march. There was Pat who has had three generations of her family get treatment there. And Julie who works with health charities and can’t believe the powers that be could ever consider running down our hospital.
Liberal Democrats were out in force, from Lynne Featherstone MP and Islington Council leader Terry Stacy at the head of the march, to local teams from Islington, Camden, Enfield and Haringey marching behind them. So many communities will be affected if the Whittington plans go ahead.
The local Council, the cross-party Defend the Whittington campaign, and some amazing publicity from the Islington Tribune (who were on the march with a bus and a band) made the march happen. The passion and anger of ordinary people made it huge.
But what none of us can do is make it clear who who decides the fate of our hospital. We only know the Whittington is under threat because of leaked documents. Despite a decade of talk about the new localism and making public services more accountable, the opposite seems to be happening with our NHS. Community Health Councils were abolished and a complicated quangocracy reports only to the Secretary of State.
As the Save Finsbury Health Centre campaign notes, “What our campaign has really been up against, however, is an entirely unaccountable system of healthcare governance…. Worse still, even after our elected local representatives have investigated an NHS decision in such detail they have no direct power to change it. Perhaps if they did and the non-execs on the PCT board were themselves directly elected, the executive officials would not feel so free to ignore public feeling, population trends, geography, transport and real costs.” That’s equally true of the Whittington.
All local politicians claim to want to save the Whittington. What Labour MPs won’t say is that their colleague, Andy Burnham, is the one politician who could do that tomorrow, if he wanted. Instead all we get is buck-passing from his juniors.
Only the Liberal Democrats are pledging to change the system to give us the locally accountable NHS that would improve our local services, not undermine them.