Brown's comeback

In all it was a well-executed speech for a Prime Minister under siege and as ministers and activists

Gordon Brown's Labour Conference speech was never going to be the 'make-or-break' point which many commentators were trying to engineer, but he certainly used the opportunity to take on his critics and win back the public. 

Progress's editorial (http://www.progressonline.org.uk/Magazine/article.asp?a=3379) in its conference edition of the magazine argued that the crucial thing the Prime Minister should do in his speech was to take responsibility for the government's mistakes in the last year, and the 10p tax debacle in particular. So it was good to see that he admitted early on in the speech that it was indeed a mistake and that taking the side of hard-working families will be a priority henceforth. It wasn't as explicit an apology as Tony Blair made over the 75p pension rise in 2000, but it was welcome nevertheless.

We also suggested that the PM should use his speech to argue that the government can no longer make the changes to Britain it seeks by governing by central dictat and that there needed to be a new contract between citizen and state. There was a reference to the changing role of the state when Gordon said: "Let us be clear the modern role of government is not to provide everything, but it must be to enable everyone." It was a shame, however that he didn't go much further than that.

There were other elements which suggested he'd listened to people's concerns. For instance it was a good move to pledge that as families have to "make economies to make ends meet" so the government too "will ensure that we get value for money out of every single pound" of taxpayers' money. Though he didn't go as far as we did and suggest that the size of Whitehall should be cut by a quarter or that the number of government ministers should be whittled down, but I guess he needs as many members of the PLP on the payroll as possible at the moment...

Progress has long campaigned for greater UK commitment to expose and act on the human rights abuses in Burma, Zimbabwe and Darfur, so Gordon's reiterated plea from last year's conference speech that the words 'never again' should not become "just a slogan" and should be instead "the crucible in which our values are tested" was welcome. But as in so many areas of government, the fine words of a speech are barely translated into practice when the stage set is dismantled. Let's hope that this year sees more action from our government in putting pressure on those regimes which think they can transgress international law without fear of retaliation.

I wasn't so sure whether the more populist measures in the speech might be storing up problems for the future. For example, while I can see why those suffering from cancer will see real benefit from the pledge to not charge for their prescriptions, won't this simply create even more inconsistency in an already byzantine system of charges and how do we respond to patients with other potentially life-threatening illnesses? More popular on the doorstep by far would have been to agree to abolish hospital car parking charges and telephone charges.

I also wasn't convinced that the move to charge migrants for use of public services will work in practice and doesn't it send the wrong signal at a time when our economy will increasingly rely on migrant labour? Are we ready to charge them for the use of schools and surely not for emergency health care?

But in all it was a well-executed speech for a Prime Minister under siege and as ministers and activists pore over the detail in the weeks to come, it may well provide the starting point for a wider debate about the direction of the government and party.

Jessica Asato is Deputy Director of Progress and a Member of the Fabian Society Executive.
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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.