Thousands turn out for "Save Lewisham A&E" hospital march

. . . and the Jeremy Hunt coconut shy went down a storm.

 

Yesterday Lewisham town centre was brought to a standstill as thousands of people took to its streets. They were voicing their their anger at proposals to close the A&E unit at Lewisham Hospital, and to downgrade the maternity service.  

The proposals come after the South London Health Care Trust ran up huge debts following an expensive PFI Initiative - as detailed in Rowenna Davis's New Statesman piece. However, that trust has nothing to do with the running of Lewisham Hospital - and there was clear anger among demonstrators that their local services were being cut in order to pay back a debt not of their making.

A local organisation, Lewisham People Before Profit, handed out song sheets with alternative Dad’s Army theme tune:

Who do you think you are kidding Mr Kershaw/ Our hospital is here to stay / We are the ones who will stop your little game / We are the ones who will make you think again / Cos we can find the money Mr Kershaw  / If we make the bankers pay.

Matthew Kershaw is the special administrator appointed by Andrew Lansley to tackle the financial problems of the South London Health Care Trust. It was his proposal to shut the A&E Department (only months after it reopened following a refit) and that the patients should be moved to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich to save money.

On the march, Brighton-based artist and educator Bern O’Donoghue said: “Both my children were born in the hospital, and we’ve used the A&E loads of times. We wouldn’t have coped if we’d have had to go six miles to Woolwich. It’s a ludicrous plan and one which will have a hugely damaging impact on the community.”

Many children on the demo were in buggies with ‘Born in Lewisham Hospital’ signs attached. I saw a mother marching with her children, carrying a placard saying “We’re here thanks to Lewisham A&E”.

Strikingly, the demo seemed to have brought together an incredibly diverse range of groups and organisations all united in opposition to the plans. I saw banners from various union branches and political groups, but there was also support from Millwall Football Club, who had even moved the date of a match so that their supporters could attend the demo. A local group called Islamic Awareness also displayed a Save Our NHS placard on their stall outside Lewisham Library as the demo passed by.  Even car drivers caught up in the march and unable to move were supportive, tooting their horns and cheering the marchers.

As the march passed by Lewisham Hospital itself, its staff - still in their medical uniforms - came out to applaud the demo, and were cheered in return.

At the final rallying point in Mountsfield Park, the atmosphere was positively charged as the crowds arrived and people began to appreciate the sheer scale of the march. 

And for those with frustrations left to vent, the Jeremy Hunt Coconut Shy was open, and doing a roaring trade. 

You can follow @Brixtonite on Twitter. 

A sign in a Lewisham window. Photo by @Brixtonite
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.