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Rachael Maskell: Labour candidate for York Central and head of health at Unite speaks to Amy Brewerton about her election plans.

UNITE'S HEAD OF HEALTH RACHAEL MASKELL has had a busy few months, and things don't look like they're going to calm down for her any time soon.

As well as leading 100,000 Unite in Health members through one of the most turbulent times for their sector, Maskell has also been working hard behind the scenes to secure her place as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour party.

The day we spoke, she was still caught in the whirlwind of activity that had followed her selection as Labour's candidate for York Central earlier the same week week. In the weeks and months to come, she will be tirelessly following the campaign trail to defend the constituency's seat in May's general election--and, if successful, for the duration of her tenure in parliament.

Physiotherapist Maskell still practices one weekend a month in between her Unite and pre-election duties, and feels that this patient contact is vital to get a picture of the issues on the ground in the health service. Having represented so many Unite in Health members, including the CPHVA, she also values the insight she has gained into the opinions and thoughts of those working on the front line in all areas of health.

She took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to Community Practitioner about her path into politics, how CPHVA members can mobilise themselves to change the NHS, and why it is so important to have a health presence in parliament.

How did you first come to be involved with Unite?

I started, like so many people, as a member of a health union. I was a physiotherapist working in the NHS and became the rep at the hospital I was working at, and became the convener for the hospital. I then went to work for the union. I've held various roles--I headed up the equality portfolio to start with, then the not-for-profit sector for seven years. When this government came in I led for the NHS. I was a regional official before leading for health, so I've always had a strong footprint in health.

What inspired you to make the move over into politics?

I believe that health workers are best placed to set out the future of the health service and therefore it's important to have people with health experience actually working in parliament and changing policies. We have seen a real dismissal of the value of the NHS. We've seen this government condemn NHS staff, we've seen them reorganise the NHS when of course they said they wouldn't, introducing cuts and privatisation. If this government were to get back in, the NHS would be unrecognisable from where it is now--and we will lose our NHS, it's a very simple fact. We will see such privatisation that we will not have a health service.

We've also seen a dumbing down of the preventative agenda. We know that investment in prevention is an investment in people's lives. I've been working with Andy Burnham for about the last three years in putting together Labour's health policy. I've been very much about setting out the future of what health and care should look at, and again really focusing on ensuring that prevention is central to that.

How do you think your experiences working in healthcare have helped you?

I continue to practice. I work a weekend a month in the NHS, and I think it's kept me very grounded with what's happening in the NHS. Not just with patients--working with my members across the health sector has really kept me grounded with what's happening in the NHS. It helps workers to determine what's happening and what should happen in the health service, and I continue to want those voices to be heard in parliament.

Do you think people are put off by the word 'politics'?

I think politics itself has become quite a passive exercise for so many people--so many people are disenfranchised--but I think we've really brought forward the experience of members, and we really do engage them as a union. That's what Unite's political strategy is all about--it's really ensuring that working people are heard, are listened to, and influence policy. If we don't listen to people who are working on the front line then we are never going to get policy right.

Can there be more engagement among healthcare professionals?

I think that this election is going to be so crucial, and would encourage all health workers to play a very active role. I think that health workers deliver the best message to the electorate about the state of the health service, so I would be encouraging all Unite's NHS workers to go out and campaign in their constituencies and to talk about what they experience and see all around them in the NHS. Obviously I believe that Labour has got a strong plan moving forward and will support patients and clients in a far better way than anything we've got at the moment--particularly the integration between physical health, mental health, and social care. Bringing that holistic approach back into the heart of the NHS will be crucial. Making sure that the patient drives the finances and the structures around them, rather than the structures determining what happens to patients.

Who inspires you most in terms of politics, past or present?

I'm totally inspired by the 1945 government. At a time of economic austerity, where we had so many people coming back from serving our country and needing jobs, our government renationalised so many services, built the welfare state, including the NHS. As a result they created the jobs, economic growth, and a welfare state to support us. I think if it can be done in 1945, it can be done now. We should take the spirit of 1945 into this election--70 years on--to ignite hope again across our country.

What advice would you give to those who are disillusioned with politics, or who would just like to become more involved?

I would encourage all Unite members to look at what's happened in Greece recently. The power is in their hands. If they want to make a difference and they're frustrated with the situation and how things are, it's when workers join together and organise that they can bring about change and make a difference. I believe that the future of politics is about people taking a collective stake in the political system. Politicians need to make sure they're listening and engaging with people --and I believe that Labour are best placed to do that, hence our historic links with the trade union movement.

Do you think the nature of political campaigning is changing?

I think there are so many ways of campaigning and I think what campaigning does is to make politicians go further, faster. Of course we have the ability now to campaign online, but there is nothing more effective than when a health worker is standing before a member of parliament telling their story. We have an amazing story in the NHS, but we also have a story where things have got really difficult in the past few years. We think about the cuts to NHS pay, we think about cuts to terms and conditions, we think about cuts to services--I think people need to hear the real story about what is happening in the NHS. There is a real alternative out there, and Labour, I think, their health policy is probably the most exciting policy that they've put forward, therefore it's something to really get out of the armchair for, to campaign for and to fight for.

How important is it to have health workers in parliament?

We don't have many clinicians--there's never been a physiotherapist in parliament--but we do need people who have been there from all different parts of the service. I always think that the health service is like a human body and you need all the parts there for it to be able to work. On the parliamentary benches I think we need to have people with a range of experiences in the NHS to work together to make sure we can build a health service that is fit for the future. We've got nobody with a clinical experience in that sense. So I think this is real opportunity to make sure we've got somebody there, but also representing people with such a spread of professions We've got over 100,000 Unite members working in the NHS--I am already well versed in the arguments and know the challenges facing so many of our members. Thinking of our CPHVA members in particular we need to make sure we've got a safe skill mix, staffing levels so we've got safe caseloads, if we look at school nurses, the average child just gets 12 minutes a year of school nursing, we need to make sure we've got enough top health professionals. I think that background I've got as front line clinician but also a representative of 100,000 health workers will be so useful for the Labour party but also for building the NHS of tomorrow.
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Author:Brewerton, Amy
Publication:Community Practitioner
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2015
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