Nurses will attempt to unseat MPs who do not support a pay rise for NHS staff at the next election, nursing leaders have pledged.
The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt controversially denied frontline health professionals an across-the-board one per cent pay rise earlier this year, provoking a furious reaction from health unions.
While some have threatened to ballot for strike action, Dr Peter Carter, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), which is holding its annual congress this week, said that rather than jeopardise patient care through a strike, nurses should pursue “alternative forms of industrial action” at the ballot box.
“There are many MPs on all sides of the House of Commons that have small majorities, some just a few hundred, some even as low as 30 or 40” he told RCN members. “There are about 1,000 nurses in each constituency and if we mobilise ourselves I know many of those MPs will be looking over their shoulders and wondering if they'll be re-elected at the General Election next year.”
Dismay over the Government's pay settlement has dominated the RCN's congress in Liverpool. Dr Carter said that he had "never ever seen [nurses] so angry and feeling so put down”.
But he stopped short of calling for a strike despite moves from other major health towards a ballot on industrial action. Unison will ballot members over possible strike action, while Unite and GMB are consulting members.
So far the RCN has not called for a ballot, and Dr Carter said that the unique role of nurses meant that they should “think carefully” before any such decision.
“Think what going on strike really means,” he told members. “For a strike to work, it has to have a real impact on someone or something. If you work in a car factory, that means stopping the production line.
“But if you're a nurse, it means abandoning your patients, leaving those babies in the neonatal unit, cancelling that visit to an elderly patient in the community, walking out of the emergency department, or psychiatric ward,” he said.
He said it was therefore crucial to protest by other means, calling on members to write to their MP to “flush out” where they stood on healthcare workers' salaries.
Members will then be encouraged to write to other nurses in the area to inform them of the MP's position.
"We want to know where every MP is... we want some hard-edged commitments,” he said. “If our members mobilise and galvanise themselves, a lot of MPs will have to think seriously about the nurses' and healthcare workers' vote."
In refusing all healthcare workers a one per cent pay rise this year, the Government ignored the advice of its own independent Pay Review Body. Only staff who were not already receiving incremental pay rises – allocated as staff gain more experience – were handed the wage bonus, in what unions described “divide and rule” tactics.
Mr Hunt has argued that an across-the-board pay rise could only be affordable if the NHS cut 6,000 nursing jobs – an assertion that Dr Carter condemned yesterday as “shameful spin”.
“I know nurses, and I have never ever seen them so angry and feeling so put down,” he said. “But when it comes to crunch time they are not going to be walking out of wards and leaving patients. They're not going to do it because they're not that kind of people. I hope the Government doesn't trade off of that.”