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PETER FROST joins the People’s March for the NHS and meets a veteran of the Jarrow march

Bill Cotton (below) doesn’t get out much these days, but nothing could stop him on Monday morning.

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Up early and on his walking frame, the 95-year-old headed for the square in his home town of Market Harborough.

He was there to make sure the heroic marchers that make up the People’s March for the NHS got a good send-off. But he had another just as important motivation for this early start.

He was also here to pay tribute to his mother who, a century ago, served a sentence in Leicester jail for her militant campaigning as a Suffragette. She had given Bill his solid socialist principles.

Mother and Bill, then aged just 17, had greeted and helped feed the original Jarrow hunger marchers back in 1936 in that very same Market Harborough square.

Today’s marchers have based their route on the original 300 miles from north-east England to the capital.

It’s a proud route down the spine of England and down the backbone of working-class struggle.

In the early 1980s, for example, much the same route saw the People’s March for Jobs challenging and annoying prime minister Maggie Thatcher.

I was delighted to see many of today’s NHS marchers were sporting “I still hate Thatcher” badges.

Much of my local leg — just over 18 miles long — from Market Harborough to Northampton, was along the pretty Brampton Valley Way, ironically another result of short-sighted Tory cuts.

The railway was closed in the Conservative government’s destruction of Britain’s green network of country railways in the early 1960s.

Publicly owned transport was run down and then sold off by the Tories under Harold Macmillan. Sounds just like the fate the Con-Dem coalition is planning for our health services today.

Part of today’s leg is now a heritage steam railway and it was a stirring sight to see the marchers coming into the station sharing their route with a steam train.

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This amazing march is the brainchild of a group of Darlington women who call themselves the Darlomums.

Among the mums are three call centre workers, a union officer, a local councillor, a cafe owner, a teacher, a trainee nurse, a graphic designer and a beauty therapist.

As we marched along they told me: “We don’t want to see private companies operating in the NHS claiming to be more efficient when we know they are accountable only to their shareholders, who are only interested in putting maximum profit before patient healthcare.”

I wondered if those amazing Darlomums realised this part of the route was originally built as a railway by their home town’s very own George Stephenson. Railways and Save the NHS marches — the best things all seem to start in Darlington.

All along the way local people joined the march. Among them was actor Mary Jo Randle, star of The Bill, The Lakes, and many other TV and stage performances.

Local trade unionists, some of them health workers, had brought their banners. The march made a colourful and noisy show.

Passing cars beeped their horns in support and ordinary people applauded the spirit and the message of the march. One passing driver even wound down his window and handed one of the marchers a crisp tenner.

The march stopped for lunch at a pub called the Brampton Halt, once part of the railway station.

Here the Labour group on Northampton Council had provided a sumptuous feast in an elegant marquee.

One marcher told me as she sat with feet up and blisters steaming: “I could get used to this, eating smoked salmon sandwiches under a crystal chandelier.” I looked up to see she wasn’t joking.

By now the sun was out and the ever-growing march headed on the last leg into town.

On the edge of the town, Northampton’s finest more than doubled the size of the protest.

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People know the NHS isn’t safe in the hands of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and the rest of his government who are keen to sell of the profitable bits to their greedy capitalist mates.

There were even more townspeople outside the handsome All Saints church to greet the march. Several marchers took the weight off their feet in a small alcove beside the church door.

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A local supporter explained the significance of the alcove. It was here that Northampton’s peasant poet John Clare, suffering from severe mental illness, would sit all day only to return to what was then called his lunatic asylum at night.

Clare’s wonderful poetry railed against rich men stealing the common land — the English countryside itself — from the working people. 

No doubt if he were alive today Clare would use his verse to condemn our devious Con-Dem ministers for stealing our health service to sell to their rich friends. 

Meanwhile local activists addressed and entertained the crowd. A group from nearby Daventry Labour Party had been collecting signatures at the weekend and handed over their petition forms for the march to take with them to London. 

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So there it was — a day spent with real heroes, marching through wind and rain, blistered feet, stiff knees, aching backs, and all because they really believe the NHS — our NHS — is worth saving, and must be saved.

A Daily Mail poll recently declared that 95 per cent of the British people believed that multiculturalism is a failure — on the very day too that Cameron had played the race card in his build-up to the general election.

But on that day, who should welcome the marchers into Northampton but a group of young Sikh women drummers. They had brought the bright Dhol music of the Punjab in support of their NHS. 

Another group of young women fed and accommodated the marchers at the Asian Women and Girls Centre. 

Sorry, Daily Mail readers. Multiculturalism isn’t just alive and well in Northampton — it has been making delicious curry for Save the NHS Marchers. These young women are an inspiring part of all our futures.   

If you can get to London today to welcome them do it. Add your voice to the outcry to save our wonderful NHS.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 6 September 2014, the day the marchers arrived in London greeted by thousands of supporters. 

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