'Popular, radical but realistic policies'

'I do know that that we have been hitting the right buttons on issues that matter to ordinary people

It’s nearly over; a very late night tonight, the Leader’s speech tomorrow morning – which, of course, will be brilliant and then it’s back to Bath.
 
If you’ve never been to a party conference you would be amazed by the stamina of most delegates. We’re up early for breakfast meetings and from there we attend some of the main debates, maybe give a speech or two, squeezing in fringe meetings through lunchtime. Then, even more debates, meetings or training sessions until late at night and finally the partying and, as Lembit pointed out, the real political debates truly begin. So I’ll be going back to the real world with my political batteries thoroughly re-charged but in need of a rest.
 
At the conference you are in a strange bubble; almost oblivious to the world outside. For the past few days – as the party’s culture, media and sports spokesman – I’ve been immersed in issues as diverse as the distribution of Lottery funds, preparations for 2012, the future of ITV, the role of creativity in education and the challenges faced by our rugby clubs. But I’ve not had time to see or hear the news or to read a newspaper (except the clippings I’m handed showing only the daily press coverage of the conference).  I’m out of touch with anything else. I don't even have any idea what’s happened in the Archers.
 
But I do know that that we have been hitting the right buttons on issues that matter to ordinary people. Certainly our policies on tax cuts for average and low income households have been well received. So was our debate, involving Graham Le Saux, on the way football fans are losing out with the high cost of watching the game on TV and rip-off prices for season tickets.
 
We even debated and voted for the possible re-introduction of standing in top flight football games, subject to strict safety criteria. Our decision got generally favourable press coverage. The Sunday Express, however, did what Liberal Democrats used to be accused of doing: trying to have it both ways. The main article had people accusing me and the party of being “insensitive”, “crackpots”, “a severe embarrassment to Nick Clegg”. Meanwhile, a few pages later the editorial claims, “Liberal Democrats should be applauded for re-opening a debate that has engaged football fans for the past two decades…Shouldn’t clubs have the option of having a section of their ground for fans to stand in?”
 
As I drive back to Bath for a few hours sleep, I’ll reflect on how far we’ve come in developing popular, radical but realistic policies that reflect debates being held over drinks, and in living rooms, far beyond our little bubble in Bournemouth.  

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.