A new venture has come up whilst The Crunch and Getting Real remain marooned in Development Hell. Last September I joined the welcoming crowds for 999 Call For The NHS’ 300-mile Save Our NHS Jarrow March to London. Its founder Joanna Adams’ speech to the thousands in Trafalgar Square, with its plainspeaking passion and vision, shamed the mealy-mouthings of most politicians and their entourages.
The 999 Call March, followed shortly by the Scottish referendum and big planning applications being unexpectedly rejected in our high Tory constituency thanks to local activists, plus my own experience in our newly formed local 38 Degrees internet campaign group (its eclectic mix includes a youthful hairdresser, an elderly actor, a shrink, a young internet entrepreneur, an acupuncturist and “a lifelong Tory”) inspired a sense that there’s something refreshing in the stale air of politics – the stirrings of a broad popular movement against the ruling free-market order of the last 35 years. Until now that’s been the stuff of my filmmaker’s imaginings like The Crunch.
I learned about the NHS Reinstatement Bill group, whose aim is to de-marketise the NHS and restore it to its public service remit, and of (Lord) David Owen’s central role in it. I was intrigued that a retired political warhorse, who’d been a precursor of New Labour’s pro-market evolution, would feel so passionate about the threat of the NHS’ demise at the hand of those same market forces. His acknowledgement of the need to connect with internet-savvy grassroots supporters to advance the Bill also rang bells.
I wrote an outline titled Groundswell and the great observational documentarist Charles Stewart agreed to participate. 999 Call For The NHS were recommended to me as an authentic grassroots campaign group and I readily accepted my outline being forwarded to Joanna Adams. Four days later I got the news that she’d checked Charles and me out with Ken Loach. He’d been positive about our trustworthiness.
Joanna’s caution was understandable. There are natural tensions among campaigners about aligning themselves with Labour given its role in the NHS privatisation drive, initiated by the Tories, and its trimmings to high finance and corporate interests. The 999 Callers need to be vigilant about preserving their independent, non-party position from the kind of infiltration that has apparently occurred among campaign groups.
Within days Charles, his partner Pat and I were trial filming Joanna at her pigment-sales workplace and family home in Darlington. It was a wing-and-a-prayer shoot, done ‘on spec’ at our own expense. Next day we accompanied her and some of her bright, funny, “all a bit mad” colleagues – singer/artist Jo Land, Jo’s partner/writer James, and young Jack Black-like stand-up comic Icarus – to Stafford for a day-long 999 Call conference of fellow campaigners.
There was nothing ‘mad’ about this sober, purposeful event with reps from 20 other Save The NHS organisations. Joanna chaired it, Jo did the Powerpoint presentation and Icarus spoke touchingly of the March and how the two women “never let me down”. The NHS Reinstatement Bill group’s new PR man Alan Taman outlined their work. Dr Lucy Reynolds, a former accountant who had worked in the privatising sector, was an incisive Cassandra on the machinations of the NHS privatisation forces. Underlying concerns over strategy were aired, actions discussed and planned. Joanna pronounced herself very happy with the success of the conference. She spent the crowded late night rail leg from Manchester to Rotherham discussing the NHS with a curious, sympathetic, nattily dressed DJ en route to a gig.
Back in London I described to my documentary guru, veteran editor David Naden, my first encounter with Joanna and her Crazy Gang, how affecting I’d found them and my concern at the obstacles they face in the run-up to this vital Election. “Well, there’s a story!” David noted approvingly. How better to explore the stirrings of internet-savvy People Power than through this resolutely independent campaign group and all their ups and downs as they are confronted with the realpolitiks of the NHS Reinstatement Bill and a political party apparatus which has so disillusioned them?
Two days later an old friend put up seed money to pay for basic materials and costs. That was 12 days ago. Groundswell was on the runway. But will it take off?