Will The Man In the Street Become Ed's Friend?

Ed Miliband needs to find the centre ground and make moves towards it

Jon Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, was once asked by an interviewer if he had ever looked to "the man in the street" for inspiration for his songs. "Nah", he replied, "I met the man in the street once. He was a c***".

If Ed Miliband is ever asked a similar question he'll probably offer a more generous appraisal of his fellow citizens. Hopefully he'll also point out he's the leader of the Labour party, not anarchic front man for a revolutionary new teenage sub-culture, though these day's you can never be quite sure. But Ed Miliband likes the man in the street. And in tomorrow's speech to Labour party conference he's going to endeavour to make him his friend.

The leders annual conference address , currently being reworked by Ed Miliband himself, and feverishly polished by Greg Beales and half a dozen assorted aides, is always a closely guarded secret. And as such details of it have already been leaking like a sieve. Aside from the beatification of Tom Watson, and efforts to shamelessly bask in the reflective glory of the exposure of the phone-hacking scandal, two themes are set to dominate. The requirement for Labour to occupy the political middle-ground, and the need for Labour to seize control of the "responsibility agenda" in order to do so.

Both are potentially productive strategies. The idea of planting Labour's red flag in the electoral centre is hardly new. But given Ed Miliband's early fixation with constructing a "progressive majority", his decision to at least attempt to embrace a more orthodox constituency is a sign of progress.

As is his focus on responsibility. Miliband's June speech to London community activists, in which he grasped the nettle of welfare reform, and had harsh words for those at the bottom of the income scale who abuse the benefits system, was his best to date. It took him out of his comfort zone, demonstrated he was prepared to challenge prevailing wisdom within his own party, and showed he had the confidence to confront the Tories on territory they believed was theirs by right.

All sorted then. Quick tour of the middle ground. Short lecture on responsibility. Bash the bankers, Rupert Murdoch and Nick Clegg. Toynbee salivating, Mirror cheering, Man in the Street swooning. Job done.

If only. Gone are the days when the leader of the Labour party could seduce us all with an easy blend of self-deprecating humour, faux sincerity and estuary English. Whilst Tony Blair had his finger the pulse of the nation, Ed Miliband has been struggling to even find his stethoscope.

Take that ambition to secure a long-term lease on the centre ground. A great idea in concept. But does he actually know where the middle ground is?

We had something of an insight a few weeks ago with the leaking/briefing of the Shaun Wooward memo. According to that analysis the Man in the Street is blasé about the deficit; "My credit card's maxed out", he says, "but lets whack a bit more on till the trouble passes". He's also opposed to immigration capping; "let 'em in", is his liberal attitude, "plenty of room for more where they came from". On welfare he takes an equally progressive view; "a hand out, not a hand up. That's what those poor blighters need".

Ed Miliband's team moved quickly to point out Woodward was merely providing an analysis of the Tory party's direction of travel, rather than a blueprint for Labour's own. But it was still telling that tough stances on deficit reduction, immigration and crime were perceived to represent a move away from the political mainstream. Many observers would argue they sit slap bang in the middle of it.

Which begs another question. Even if Ed Miliband does identify where the middle ground is, does he have the will and means to move towards it? As one shadow cabinet source said, "You can't just keep saying you want to occupy the centre ground. You have to actively travel towards it".

Travel towards it. Or build it around you? There are some within Ed Miliband's circle who argue that running around trying to divine public opinion is a mugs game. They believe the political centre is shifting, and it's moving in their direction; "I'm absolutely a leader placing my party firmly in the centre ground but there's a new centre ground in our politics", Miliband said back in June, "The new centre ground, for example, that means you speak out on these issues of press responsibility, a new centre ground that says that responsibility in the banking system - which we didn't talk about enough when we were in government - is relevant, a new centre ground that says people are worried about concentrations of private power in this country when it leads to abuses". In the same way the rules of the game are seemingly being re-written in Labour's favour, so the terrain is perceived to be naturally gravitating leftwards.

But not everyone is so comfortable with this analysis. The political centre, "Is not a place that the party gets to pick", Liam Byrne pointedly told delegates in his speech yesterday. ?"The centre-ground is where voters say it is. Our challenge now is to change and move in and say once more the centre-ground is our home-ground, and this is where we fight". There are a number of others in the shadow cabinet who would also like a little less conversation about occupying the middle-ground and a little more action.

Sadly, Miliband's speech writers keep falling foul of their own unique brand of realpolitik. An insider cites a debate over a particular passage referring to a "covenant with the British people". It was included in an early draft, but was then deemed to have too many quasi-religious overtones. Then someone else thought it sounded too Blairite, which killed the "covenant" off for good. A "contract" was then muted. But that was thought too corporate. Bankers have contracts. And so "the Labour Deal" was born. "Are we a party or a supermarket chain", once source moaned.

Similar issues surrounded another key theme, the impending assault on Britain's "vested interests". Would this be extended to include, for example, those who view the benefits system as a vested interest, Miliband was asked by one his shadow cabinet colleagues. "No" was the response. They were to stick to people at the top of the income ladder.

The middle-ground. The responsibility agenda. The Labour Deal. These will be Ed Miliband's key offerings to the man in the street. Whether he will accept this kind offer is another matter. He may not be a c***. But he can certainly be an awkward bugger.

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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.