Is David Cameron's luck finally running out?

The Prime Minister's personal poll ratings are falling, indicating that voters have stopped giving h

Back in February, a New Statesman cover story asked: how long can David Cameron keep getting away with it?My colleague Rafael Behr discussed how the Prime Minister is “uncannily immune from blame”, saying:

To Labour's frustration, on most issues Cameron's ear tends to be pretty well tuned. He performs the role of Prime Minister with a breezy aplomb that looks enough like competence for voters to give him the benefit of the doubt. That leeway is something Labour knows will shrink over time, just as the party awaits the moment when Cameron and Osborne will start getting the blame for economic malaise. As one shadow cabinet minister puts it: "People haven't yet realised that the government is failing.

Has the time now come when voters have stopped giving Cameron the benefit of the doubt? It looks like it, if today’s Evening Standard/Ipsos Mori poll is to be believed.

The number of people dissatisfied with Cameron’s performance has risen to 60 per cent, the highest since he became Conservative leader in 2005.
It appears that this is linked to a loss of confidence in the coalition’s handling of the economy, as our cover story suggested. Despite mounting evidence against the Conservative austerity package, this is an area in which Labour has consistently failed to gain ground. As Behr’s article argued:

He and Osborne have controlled the terms of debate so that the dominant question in people's minds is who should be permitted to clean up Labour's mess, which naturally invites the answer "not Labour".

The UK’s dip back into recession and the broadly negative response to George Osborne’s latest Budget perhaps made it inevitable that the tide would turn (indeed, it may be more surprising that it took so long). In the Ipsos poll, 31 per cent of voters said that they thought the Tories had the best policies on the economy – but Labour nearly matched this with 30 per cent. This is notable, given that this is the one area where the Conservatives have consistently outstripped the opposition. Just a month ago, they had a clear 10 point lead.

Confidence also fell, with 44 per cent believing that the economy will get worse over the next year, compared with 21 per cent who think it will improve. This gives on overall “optimism” score of minus 23, five points worse than last month.

Nor is this poll the only sign that the tide may be turning against Cameron and his government’s austerity package. As my colleague Jon Bernstein noted over the weekend, a Sunday Times/YouGov poll showed a personal ratings swing towards the Labour leader Ed Miliband and away from Cameron. The scores were hardly cause for celebration for either leader – Miliband was on minus 23 while Cameron was on minus 29 – but it is a significant that the Prime Minister’s personal ratings are falling, given that he has always out-polled his party. It looks like Lucky Dave’s luck is running out.
 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for 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.