The contempt for democracy

Think about this while you read press coverage of the student protests.

This is a cross-post from Enemies of Reason

We'll read a lot about these student protests today. Much of the rage will focus on the fact that an elderly chutney maker had his car kicked in by some people on his way to see Michael McIntyre and Cheryl Cole perform in his honour. Some will deplore the breaking and burning of things by those whom Kay Burley would label as "insurgents". Some others, maybe a smaller number, will wonder if it's a tremendously excellent thing to charge at children with police horses or drag other people out of wheelchairs, or bash them over the head with batons, and all of that – but probably conclude that, yes, sadly, it's actually OK.

One thing that might come up a few times is the idea that a protest of this nature shows "contempt for democracy". If it is, you have to ask: who showed contempt for democracy first?

Is it contemptuous of democracy, for example, to tell people that you have certain policies, become elected because of their votes on the basis of what you've said, and then once you're safely in power for five years, turn around and say, "Look, I'm awfully sorry but things have changed – that manifesto which we said was our manifesto is more of a 'holding manifesto', to be broken open in the unlikely event that we ever get elected with an overall majority; and it is to be entirely ignored if we become part of a coalition, when we can cheerfully reject some or all of our promises?"

Is it contemptuous of democracy, for example, to not tell people that you're going to introduce something like tuition fees in the first place, but then, once you're safely elected, and having given no indication that you're going to introduce tuition fees, introduce tuition fees?

Does it say something about politicians' contempt for democracy, perhaps, that the country can go to war with a foreign power that poses no threat to it, based on no legitimate evidence whatsoever, and that no citizen of that country should have a say in the matter; that entirely peaceful protests should be completely and utterly ignored because it is history, not citizens, who are the real judge of a prime minister, and besides, God told him it would all be all right?

No, of course not. Have a patronising pat on the head and a biscuit to make you feel better. None of that is contempt for democracy at all; that's just part of the rich ebb and flow of parliamentary life, which is so very vital and important to everything getting done. Well, if people told you what they were going to do, or did the things they told you they were going to do, how on earth could things function then? It would almost be as if you were voting for parties based on certain principles, or values, and that they would stick to them, or something. And that would never do.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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.