“Nurses could be a voice to be reckoned with if we became more politically astute,” says Danielle Tiplady, who in the last three years has become one of the most influential nurses on the picket line and one of most prominent voices behind the campaign to shake up the Royal College of Nursing.
The 32-year-old jumped loudly into the public arena in early 2016 as a leading critic of the government’s policy to remove bursaries for nursing students in England. She herself was a student nurse at the time, studying at King’s College London after working for around six years as a healthcare assistant.
“Nurses could be a voice to be reckoned with if we became more politically astute”
Her activist fire had already been gently simmering, but Ms Tiplady told Nursing Times that the move to drop funding support for student nurses ignited an inferno that could not be quelled.
“I have always been political but when I was at university and the government took away the student nurse bursary that was the final straw,” she said. “That’s when I become very active, because I knew what the bursary meant.
“For me, I’m from Cornwall, I’m working class. I wouldn’t have studied nursing without the bursary,” said Ms Tiplady, who is chair of the RCN’s Inner North East London branch. “It was something that gave me a massive stepping stone to achieve well beyond anything I ever thought I could.”
Unsure what path to take after leaving school, Ms Tiplady decided to try out an HCA role and said she insistently knew she had chosen the right career.
“I just stumbled across caring as a job,” she said. “I didn’t really think I would like to do it, but as soon as I walked in and started doing the job I knew within seconds that I loved it and it was what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing.”
“Nurses and HCAs are already struggling, and this was the last thing that they needed”
Ms Tiplady said she was prompted to convert to nursing by an “inspiring” nurse who took her under her wing. Not having any A-Levels, Ms Tiplady did an access course in Bath before going on to study adult nursing in London. Qualifying in 2016, she now works in intensive care.
After the scrapping of the bursary, she was back in the nursing headlines after launching a petition asking the government to ditch the 1% cap on nurse pay rises, which had endured since 2010. Ms Tiplady wrote to unions calling for support and the campaign was picked up most keenly by the RCN, with the iconic strapline “Scrap the Cap” also born.
But in the digital age, putting your head above the parapet often attracts backlash and for Ms Tiplady this has often been centred around her party-political views. She described herself as a “proud” Labour supporter who became a member of the party after Jeremy Corbyn was elected in 2015, because she connected strongly with his socialist stance.
Twice in the past two years, Ms Tiplady has been the subject of articles in the tabloids criticising the BBC for bringing her on to discuss problems in the NHS without mentioning her political allegiance.
This exposure led her to suffer “abuse” from members of the public on social media. While admitting these attacks were troubling, Ms Tiplady remained defiant in her politic beliefs.
“I’m a socialist, proud of it, and I’m a Labour Party member,” said Ms Tiplady. “I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of.”
Ms Tiplady’s petition subsequently gained over 100,000 signatures and, as a result, the issue was debated in parliament in January 2017. In October that year, then health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced the cap would be dropped in 2018.
The loosening of the purse strings meant unions could then negotiate a new pay deal for their members that would make up for years of austerity.
However, as discussions got underway, Ms Tiplady grew concerned that the messages being disseminated by the RCN to members were mispresenting the offer.
Ms Tiplady said she tried to raise the issue at both the RCN’s 2018 congress and annual general meeting, but in June this year, RCN members voted to accept the pay deal.
All members were told they would get a 3% per pay rise this summer but it turned out this was not the case. Only half got the rise straight away, with the remainder receiving just 1.5% with the rest due on their incremental date.
“The [ballot] result came in and it was accepted,” she said. “I understand what democracy is, so I accepted that. Then, in July pay slips came in and people were infuriated at how little they got. That’s when a group of us decided that we needed to do something about it, because nurses and HCAs are already struggling, and this is the last thing that they needed.”
Sticking to a method that she knew to be effective, Ms Tiplady started a petition – this time calling for an emergency general meeting (EGM) and a motion of no confidence in the RCN’s ruling council. The petition received the signatures it needed to force an EGM in just over 24 hours.
An independent review commissioned by the RCN into its handling of the pay deal found that the college did in fact issue misleading information about the offer to members.
The controversy claimed senior scalps, with resignations from both the RCN’s chief executive and general secretary, Janet Davies, and its director of member relations, Chris Cox.
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As the RCN attempted to defend its leadership in the lead up to the EGM, party politics were again brought into play. In a letter targeting RCN members in Scotland, the council wrote: “This is a potentially dangerous time for the college with this small group of members putting at risk what has always been a proudly non party-political organisation.”
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Ms Tiplady said: “They tried to attack us with our politics again and that was really disappointed, because it shows that they failed to even try and understand what’s going on here. It’s the fact that nurses have been let down, it’s nothing to do with anyone’s politics.
“With the petition, I know people that vote for all different political parties and even some that vote for none that have signed it and they supported it, so it just shows that there is a real disconnect between those that lead us at present and the membership,” she said.
The EGM subsequently took place on 28 September. Ms Tiplady presented the no confidence resolution on behalf of the petitioners. She is understood to have faced further scrutiny over her political stance during the proceedings, which were held behind closed doors.
“I think they feel like we have been totally let down and not just with pay, it’s with everything”
The result of the vote that followed sent shock waves throughout the profession. A massive 78.1% of members who took part in the vote supported the motion for the council to stand down, though the turnout was very low – just 3.47% of the RCN’s membership having chosen to take part.
Ms Tiplady said she was “bowled over with shock” when the result was announced. Asked for her views on why members supported the motion, Ms Tiplady said: “People have many reasons but, on the whole, I think they feel like we have been totally let down and not just with pay, it’s with everything.
“We don’t have a leadership that’s going out and fighting for us, for frontline nurses and HCAs. Things are really, really bad and people feel like nobody is standing up for them,” she said.
“People feel as well that the power has been taken away from the membership and our council members have allowed that to happen. It’s been put in the hands of staff. Also, I think people feel like things aren’t very transparent anymore and they are shut out and they don’t have a say,” she added.
The RCN has since confirmed that the majority of council members will stand down at the end of this year. Formal election processes are underway and those elected will take up office on 1 January.
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Ms Tiplady, herself, is unable to stand because she has not been a member of the RCN for long enough. However, she added that she “definitely” wanted to in the future. She is, instead, pledging her support to Tom Bolger, who is vying for the London seat and who she describes as her “role model”.
Ms Tiplady said she still believed in the RCN as an organisation but that the events of the last four months signalled the desire for a modern makeover.
“It has to change, no matter what happens, who gets elected in the council elections, it’s clear that members want something different and they need something different,” she said. “There is a lot of people that engaged with the EGM that previously have not engaged and that needs to be harnessed. We can’t have more of the same.”
She added that, after the EGM, a group of around 40 nurses came together to start a new alliance, called Voices of the RCN, which is campaigning to make the college more member-led and democratic.
Looking ahead, Ms Tiplady said she wanted to see the current joint role of chief executive and general secretary split, with the latter becoming elected by members.
Nurse’s pay rise petition passes key milestone
With the current challenges facing the profession, Ms Tiplady said there had never been a more important time for nurses to stand up and speak out for what they believed in.
“Nurses could be a voice to be reckoned with if we became more politically astute,” she said. “If you look at how much of an impact we had during the general election and ‘scrap the cap’ – it was massive and if we could do that every day we could really, really be a force that nobody could argue with.
“Things have got really, really bad for nurses in all sectors and all of the attacks that we have had over the last few years with government policy, and if we want things to get any better, then we need to start standing together and speaking up and fighting together,” she told Nursing Times.
The Royal College of Nursing responds
An RCN spokesman said: “As one of our leading activists, Danielle’s views have been heard. The college is changing in response to the similar concerns of other members. We will bring forward new plans to engage the full breadth of the membership and ensure we listen to and act on their views in the future. 2019 will bring fresh leadership for the RCN and every member is encouraged to participate in that renewal – beginning with voting in the current council and president elections.”