On 28th September, historic events opened a door in the nursing movement that the careerists will find hard to close - if they can close it at all.
During the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) emergency general meeting (EGM), nurses voted overwhelmingly - for the first time ever - in agreement with a vote of no confidence in the current council. The leadership know that their days are numbered.
This came off the back of a petition signed by over one thousand members in the wake of the contemptible NHS pay deal, which was scandalously billed by the RCN leadership as a godsend.
But the rotten deal was just the catalyst for grassroots anger. The main thrust for change was the lack of accountability, transparency, democracy and membership engagement within the union.
Approximately 150 were in attendance at the EGM. Half-a-day of debate took place, with heated exchanges across the hall.
It began with Danielle Tiplady presenting the argument for the vote of no confidence. The current chair of the RCN Council, meanwhile, tried to meekly apologise for her and her colleagues’ actions, telling the audience with stoney face that “we’ve heard you; we’ve listened”.
Events over the next few hours, however, proved that everything that activists had said over the last year were continuing to fall on deaf ears.
While impassioned speeches were given by rightfully angry RCN members, the council tried to blame the tensions solely on communication issues.
But the problems run much deeper than that. Rank-and-file members were asking about why this pay deal wasn’t challenged from the top; why minutes that can’t be verified were signed off; why a letter got sent to Scottish colleagues in an attempt to manipulate the vote; and a whole host of other issues. What was clear throughout was that the council had no defence for their actions.
The union leaders actually doubled down on their stance that the nurses who care about the future of nursing, about other healthcare professionals, and about the NHS are just a “small minority” of troublemakers. The current acting general secretary, Dame Donna Kinnair, ludicrously claimed that 600 political activists were “infiltrating” the RCN.
Scorn quickly flew in her direction from the crowd, who asked whether she had “misspoken” or if the RCN had been taken over “for MI5”. Kinnair didn’t mince her words as she concluded that they have information that a lot of “political activity” is coming out of South East London. Members of the crowd began questioning where this information was coming from; why it was relevant; and how did it excuse the leadership’s constant failures, sell-outs, and careerism.
The final vote was stark. An overwhelming 11,156 (78.19%) to 3,124 (21.9%) in favour of the vote of no confidence, with just 1,112 abstentions (0.81%).
Two things to take away from this vote are: (1) with less than 4% of membership taking part, it proved the point about how far engagement has fallen; but (2), it is also proof that the majority will not except the status quo or the moderate voice - they will only be engaged by a more radical programme.
Still, 11,156 votes of no confidence in the union leadership is still very telling, particularly for a poorly advertised EGM taking place during work hours.
Contempt for the membership
Remarkably, not only did the union leadership fail to offer a defence or response, they didn’t even have a contingency plan for if they lost the vote. Rather, they stated that they would meet the next Tuesday (2nd October) to discuss the way forward, instead of having an immediate plan of action for after the EGM. This was yet another nail in their own self-built coffin.
What we have learnt since is that the Council meeting concluded that they would indeed be stepping down at the end of their term, but that most would attempt to stand again. Of course they have the the right to do this. But what could they possibly offer?
The current leadership are playing games and showing contempt for the membership. They even dubbed the vote of no confidence as “advisory” and are only following it as an order due to its “moral weight”. They are attempting to paint themselves upholding democracy, whilst downplaying the enormous significance of what happened at the EGM on 28th September.
Furthermore, this recent Council meeting was not at all transparent. The information that came from it wasn’t sent to members directly, but leaked to the press. As a result, nurses had to find out about the Council’s plans from the media, rather than from their own leadership. This is just another damning indictment of why this this vote of no confidence was launched in the first place.
Moreover, the RCN Chair alleged in the leaked article that:
“There have been some members who have used political strategy in their campaign. I believe that this organisation has to remain in an apolitical state to be able to benefit all members.”
Firstly, which members are benefitting from a defanged trade union? It certainly isn’t the rank-and-file majority. The leadership’s stance only benefits themselves and their friends in the Department of Health (DoH).
Secondly, with all this talk of political campaigning, the title of the press piece was: Nurse leaders ousted by left-wing infiltrators. This was in an article in The Times, a Murdoch-owned mouthpiece of the establishment.
It is insidious to claim that there is an organised left in the union that is “political”, when the RCN President was seen clapping at the recent Tory Party conference whilst speakers announced policies that will negatively affect Nurses.
The RCN leadership is itself highly political: it silences dissent and has essentially become a spin doctor for the DoH over the recent pay deal. They allowed the DoH to make the deal needlessly confusing, with the RCN pushing a narrative that the DoH didn’t even ask for. And they neglected to challenge the Tories over their figures, or about how the new deal would be fully funded by the Treasury. (As we later found out, it wouldn’t be funded by new money at all.)
Surely it is deeply “political” (and extremely alienating for new union members) to label those who ask questions as being delusional or as infiltrators?
A force for change
Yet, out of all of this, the most important moment was the post-EGM meeting which saw dedicated members of the RCN get together and discuss where to go next.
As a new a layer of members organise, they will breathe life into the union, bringing democratic changes and legitimate representation with them. It is up to members to be the change they want to see: a force that not only the DoH fears, but also the current RCN leadership.
We say: if those at the top refuse to listen to the workers; if they refuse to stand up to the Tories; if they refuse to learn the lessons of the past - then let them tremble.