CommentPlus: pick of the papers

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Tories' chance to lose their nasty image (Financial Times)

David Cameron should sack Chris Grayling for defending the right of B&B owners to turn away gay couples, argues Chris Cook. This is a golden opportunity for the Tory leader to show the depth of his commitment to changing his party.

2. Chris Grayling reveals the real Tories (Guardian)

Elsewhere, Peter Tatchell says that Cameron's failure to condemn Grayling's remarks swiftly calls into doubt the sincerity and seriousness of his commitment to gay equality.

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3. Best forgotten (Times)

With the World Cup due to open in Johannesburg in June, the murder of Eugene Terre'Blanche could not have come at a worse time for South Africa, says a leader in the Times. His death must not be allowed to threaten the racial harmony that this white supremacist always opposed.

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4. I have never known the Tories to be so committed to the poor (Independent)

Unlike Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron has an instinctive sympathy for the poor, writes Bruce Anderson. After the left's failure to stem inequality, the Tories' social justice agenda deserves a chance.

5. Health-care reform is creating more anxiety than euphoria (Guardian)

The passage of health-care reform was a definite negative for Barack Obama's poll ratings, says Michael Tomasky. The president must confront a deep anxiety among independent voters that the Democrats are planning more huge domestic legislation.

6. Politicians should get among the people (Daily Telegraph)

The party leaders should follow John Major's example and get on the soapbox, writes Philip Johnston. Limited contact between the electorate and those who seek to lead it is one of the main reasons for declining turnout.

7. Italy still unable to see beyond Berlusconi (Financial Times)

The Italian electorate appears convinced that there is no alternative to Silvio Berlusconi, says Geoff Andrews. But Berlusconi's reforms are designed to do little more than consolidate his power and neuter his opponents.

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8. God is attracting more debate than ever (Guardian)

The New Atheists intended to dent the growth of religion across the world, writes Madeleine Bunting. Instead, they only fed our interest in it.

9. George Osborne's got it right -- we need wealth creation (Daily Telegraph)

The Tories' planned National Insurance cut proves that they support and understand the wealth creators of society, argues Boris Johnson.

10. Marginalised maybe, but we aren't persecuted (Times)

Christians in Britain need to learn to speak of their faith without implying that those of no faith are morally defective, says Richard Harries.

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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.