THE “Scrap the Cap” day of action on nurses’ pay should focus minds as we enter the conference season — and Jeremy Corbyn was right to make raising pay the key theme of the first Prime Minister’s Questions since Parliament’s summer break.
The pay cap has affected all public-sector workers, forcing real wages down year on year as the cost of living, especially accommodation, has soared. But nurses — already among the lowest-paid skilled workers — have been hit particularly hard.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has calculated that nurses are paid 14 per cent less in real terms than they were when the Conservatives came into office.
For all the Tory rhetoric about making work pay, their actions in office have done the opposite — shunting working families into poverty on an unprecedented scale.
Official figures showed in March that over two-thirds of households living below the poverty line are in work.
The RCN has been warning for over a year that nurses are being forced to fall back on the charity of strangers at foodbanks and juggle pay-day loans to make ends meet.
The result has been a predictable exodus from the profession. Nobody becomes a nurse for financial gain — the pay has always been far too low for that.
But however much the comfortably off prattle about a “vocation” for caring for the sick which “is its own reward,” deeply caring workers will still be forced out if they cannot keep a roof over their heads or feed their children.
This explains the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s revelation in July that the number of nurses quitting had leapt by 51 per cent over the past four years, with more leaving than starting for the first time over the past year.
The National Health Service faces a record 40,000 nursing vacancies, double the number of unfilled positions recorded just three years ago.
Pay is not the only issue, of course: since the vote to leave the European Union, the government has used EU citizens as bargaining chips in a sordid game of beggar-my-neighbour with the bureaucrats in Brussels. It has repeatedly snubbed demands from the Labour Party and the left that EU citizens be guaranteed the right to stay.
Along with frankly xenophobic speeches by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, it hardly shows the hard-working immigrants who keep our health service running that their contribution to Britain is appreciated, and it is not surprising if many decide to take their skills elsewhere.
Leaked Tory plans for post-Brexit Britain, extending injustices already meted out to non-EU citizens such as income thresholds, turning employers into “right to work” spooks and kicking out overseas students, follow the same unsavoury pattern. But if wages are not the only issue, they are right at the heart of the matter.
This was made plain in the general election, where received wisdom about the dominating role of Brexit was proved wrong.
Labour’s surge came about because it spoke directly to people’s concerns about secure jobs, proper wages and decent public services.
Nurses taking action today can be confident that a Labour government would raise their pay, properly fund the NHS and rid it of private-sector parasites.
Working people across the country know Labour now has their back, as it showed with its unapologetic support for this week’s McDonald’s strike.
The labour movement should remain focused on fighting for a Britain that works for the many, not the few, on an economic programme of raising pay, strengthening workers’ rights and expanding public ownership.
Our attitudes to constitutional issues should be based on whether they make that Britain easier or harder to build.