Rightly or wrongly sometimes first impressions linger – or at least their shadows do. When I first came into nursing over 30 years ago I didn’t really notice the Royal College of Nursing. I was a mental health nurse and didn’t feel we were their type back then. They liked people who ironed vigorously and listened to Phil Collins; when they looked at us they saw people who played pool with their patients and called it work.
I was in my third year before I realised there was an RCN. We were on strike over funding cuts – yes, we were arguing about it then too – shaking our fists at the government and phoning our MPs from phone boxes that smelt of unattended commodes.
I remember how anti-strike it was, indeed how anti-us it was. How it argued that a good nurse never leaves their patient – when we told the RCN that by not protecting services it was leaving all the patients it hadn’t met yet. It huffed and puffed, and said politics was not for nursing. It tried to intimidate some of its younger members by talking about the bleak career prospects of ‘people who strike’. It was struggling, I think, with the dual role of professional organisation and trade union – and in that struggle I couldn’t help feeling that it functioned like a cult.
It is wrong to say that I have been antiRCN ever since. In truth (and this probably says something about how vague my sense of institutions is) I think of it in the same way as I think of minor royals or sliced ham – that is to say, rarely and without any feeling at all. Although maybe that doesn’t quite work because I do sometimes notice, and I do sometimes comment on things the RCN does. I never comment on what sliced ham does.
Here are two things the RCN has done recently that I think might be worth noticing. The first just before my birthday (thank you, I’ve decided to be 42 again) was the Nursing on the Brink report, warning that staff shortages are now so widespread and rooted into services that fundamental nursing care is not getting done and the health of nurses is suffering.
More than 30,000 nurses participated in the survey. Of those, 58% reported a staffing shortfall on their last NHS shift. This was a significant report, even if the BBC didn’t seem to realise it. It is the RCN at its best – take a mirror to the nursing experience and show government and beyond the destruction that is being caused by their policies.
Later however, at Congress, nurses expressed concern that the RCN had misrepresented the proposed pay deal, claiming it to be far better than it actually is. Nurses talked about feeling misled by their union. One nurse even talked about feeling coerced to accept it. Less overt than 30 years ago perhaps, but clumsy nonetheless – and lacking the sensibility one might have imagined would sit at the heart of a nursing organisation.
The general secretary said the RCN will look at these concerns and I’m sure the concerned members look forward to hearing those reflections. But one wonders if the issue for the RCN remains the one it always was? It is an effective and skilled professional organisation but it can appear to be a confused and naïve union. In trying to promote the role and standing of nursing, it looks to avoid political conflict and perhaps accepts lesser victories than members deserve. Is it possible to perform both of those roles without them bumping into each other? It may be that the RCN has got better at it over the years, but it still seems to be a struggle doesn’t it?
Mark Radcliffe is author of Stranger than Kindness.
Follow him on twitter @markacradcliffe.