Barry Sheerman's "small English rant"

Why does a Labour MP think it is in the interests of his constituents to attack eastern Europeans?

We've all been there: late for a train, starving, and so you're forced to buy some over-priced slop from a sandwich chain on the station forecourt. You're in a hurry, and so is the hard-pressed, minimum-waged shop assistant.

In the muddle that follows, they mess up your order. Annoying, yes – but for Huddersfield's Labour MP, Barry Sheerman, this was a chance to take aim at foreigners. On 23 April, he tweeted:

"Just had worst coffee and bacon bap in London at Victoria Station. Why can't Camden Food Co employ English staff?"

When asked by one of his Twitter followers if he was being xenophobic about the "eastern European" woman who served him, Mr Sheerman – who once explained his opposition to a ban on fox-hunting “because I don't like the persecution of minorities” – replied:

"We are all allowed a small English rant on St George's day aren't we?"

Followed by:

"I am not a xenophobe. I am an MP and I represent the good folk of Huddersfield not Gdansk!"

Mr Sheerman later told the Huddersfield Examiner that unemployed people in his constituency should have "first crack" at jobs "rather than someone who has arrived from eastern Europe yesterday" and that "high levels" of immigration also "put pressure on housing, hospitals and our schools".

Yet if Mr Sheerman really was motivated by concern for his hard-working Huddersfield constituents, perhaps he can explain why it was in their interests to:

 

  • Grandstand on “foreign” competition for jobs when we are in the middle of a crisis caused by the banks and made worse by the coalition's failed economic policies?
  • Spend 13 years supporting a New Labour government committed to a “flexible” labour market with some of the harshest anti-union laws in Europe, under which inequality of income rose, and where some argue that the free movement of labour was used as a “21st-century incomes policy”?
  • Vote for an Iraq war that precipitated a major refugee crisis?
  • Vote for anti-terrorism measures that have treated British Muslims as a problem community and a potential “enemy within”?
  • Acquiesce to the removal of compulsory language GCSEs, making it harder for British workers to compete in the international jobs market and increasing the hostility mono-lingual English speakers feel when they hear foreign languages spoken in public?
  • Choose St George's Day to have an “English rant” when some of his Labour colleagues are trying to “de-toxify” English nationalism, and when Kirklees, the borough in which his constituency is located, is only just free of BNP candidates for the first time in 12 years?

Mr Sheerman is absolutely right that we should be able to talk about difficult issues without fear of “pernicious political correctness”. Perhaps he can start with the above. I'm sure his constituents – including the ones for whom English is not a first language, or whose families originate overseas – would love to know.

A bacon sandwich. Ethnic origin of the pig could not be confirmed at time of going to press. (Getty Images.)

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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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.