It was seven o'clock Wednesday morning when nearly 70,000 "junior doctors", the equivalent of medical interns in France, began a six-day strike in the United Kingdom. Never has a social movement of young doctors lasted so long across the Channel. Near hospitals, they wear their orange caps bearing the acronym BMA, the British Medical Association, the union initiating the appeal.
On their signs, the messages display the unambiguous demands: “A revaluation for doctors! ” or “ 15 Pounds an hour is not a living wage! ". If the young demonstrators attack the policies of the conservative government, no support from the Labor Party, historically close to the unions, is on the horizon.
Also read: United Kingdom: young doctors launch strike of unprecedented duration
Since March 2023, medical interns have stopped working nine times to demand a salary increase and better working conditions, which have deteriorated considerably since the Covid-19 pandemic. But the health crisis has only brought to light the difficulties that the once very popular NHS has been going through for years.
Established in 1948 by the Labor government of Clement Attlee, it aimed to provide all British citizens with a free healthcare service against tax. It then gradually established itself as a reliable and efficient institution, resisting the economic slump of the 1970s and the all-privatization of the Thatcherite era. Returning to power with Tony Blair at the turn of the millennium, the Labor Party focused on investing massively in the NHS.
But the 2008 crisis reshuffled the cards. The conservatives imposed austerity on the public health service, the consequences of which are still visible today. Cuts in public spending, deterioration of working conditions, lack of labor and reduction in the number of beds, the ills are numerous but the solutions fanciful.
In the middle of the Brexit referendum campaign, the famous pro-leave camp bus promised to invest 350 million pounds (around 408 million euros) in the NHS in the event of withdrawal. One Brexit later, the billions are missing and the lip service efforts made by the Conservatives do not compensate for the dysfunctions.
Under the very left-wing Jeremy Corbyn, Labor defends massive investment in the NHS or even “renationalisation” in the face of the Conservatives' supposed desire for privatization which the Labor leader denounces. Keir Starmer largely watered down these comments, certainly promising to put the NHS “back on the right path” but also defending budgetary rigor. Interviewed by the BBC in December, his shadow health minister, Wes Streeting, refused to support the medical interns then on strike. He speaks of a “chaos” in the finances of the NHS which does not allow them to meet the demand for an overall increase of 35% in their salaries.
Opposite, the conservative government is not changing its position. He maintains the proposal for a 3% wage increase in addition to the 8.8% already negotiated last summer, far from the strikers' demands. The conflict risks getting bogged down at the dawn of the campaign for the legislative elections planned for the “second half of 2024”.
As sensitive as it is in a country very attached to its public health system - the NHS, in crisis for years - the subject is not part of the Labor agenda. Keir Starmer will not make the slightest mention of it during his back-to-school speech in Bristol in the southwest of England. The objective is quite different: to launch his party in the race for the legislative elections with the slogan “Bring It On!” » (“Go ahead!”) sent to his constituents.
Barring any surprises, a return to business in 2024 seems to be on the horizon for Labor. In the polls, the Labor Party enjoys a lead of around 18 points over the Tories of Rishi Sunak, the current Prime Minister. A form of weariness is felt among the British after 14 years of Conservative administration, punctuated by scandals, fiascos and failures.