Sketch: no laughs from serious Dave

Tory delegates wriggled uncomfortably as their leader told them tough times were still ahead.

It was the sudden appearance of Charles Montgomery Burns, masquerading as the Mayor of New York, which offered a clue that this would be a Prime Ministerial speech with a difference. The job of any Tory party leader on the last day of conference has traditionally been to send delegates out onto the streets, jaws dripping with blood after being fed the raw meat of intolerance for an hour.

But David Cameron turned that on its head this morning, with sixty minutes that left them confused and a danger to any plump passers by. The PM had already adopted the now traditional route of putting out today's speech yesterday to allow those turning up to know in advance most of what he was going to say. Those who did decide to make the effort had obviously come expecting to be sent to whatever counts as the barricades in Tory Party circles. But the omens were bad from the start, when reports started to come in claiming there were more people queuing at Birmingham New Street for trains out of town than for seats for their leader's words of wisdom.

After the Mayor of London had spent yesterday feeding delegates out of his hands, you could see they were somewhat confused by the sudden emergence of his New York counterpart, Michael Bloomberg, as official warm-up man for their leader. Where Boris had them rolling in the aisles, Michael could only manage them rolling their eyes as he rolled through an ad for his city and a couple more for the PM.

Whether this was a cunning plan to bore them into submission or to set the speaking bar so low that even Lassie could qualify, was yet to be seen as Mr B tottered off and the lights were thankfully lowered. By now, delegates were so confused that they broke into applause for the scene shifters as they swooped in to replace one lectern with another and polish up Dave's autocue. The Prime Ministerial minders had already let it be known that today's speech would be serious words for serious times and when he finally arrived on stage, fashionably late, his pallor gave off that intention - although he had also been for an infamous Birmingham balti the night before.

And from the off, it was clear he did not intend to play this one for laughs and delegates wriggled uncomfortably as he told them tough times are still ahead. He mentioned Chancellor George, happily escaped abroad, and they sat on their hands. He half-heartedly pressed a couple of the usual buttons, welfare and trade unions, which would normally bring them to their feet but they shuffled into hardly more than polite applause.

Having been stung by Ed Miliband's constant reminders that he leads the party of the rich - much to the satisfaction of many delegates - he said he didn't look at the label on the tin but what was in it. As some turned to their neighbours for guidance, the PM declared he was not here to defend privilege but to spread it and that at last provoked the first stirrings of enthusiasm from his listeners. Cut-aways by the TV cameras showed his cabinet desperately trying to show interest, none more so than new Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, whose appointment must surely have caused as much confusion to Tory Party activists as the rest of the country. 

The purpose of the speech, we were told earlier, was to mark out the Tories as the party of the "strivers" and certainly by now many were striving to look interested. With the appointed hour now finally up, and Dave's throat possibly affected by balti burn, it was left to newly-appointed minister Anna Soubry to be first to her feet to lead the spontaneous standing ovation booked for such occasions.

Dave quickly gathered up Sam Cam and was out of the door before anyone changed their mind. "It's not where you come from the counts, it's where you're going," he had said minutes earlier in his speech - and he wasn't telling us.

David Cameron delivers his speech at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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.