CommentPlus: pick of the papers

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

1. Gove's claim to be "freeing" schools is a cloak for more control from the centre (Guardian)

This dreary abuse of local democracy was tried by Thatcher and Blair. But, says Simon Jenkins, all people want is fair access to a good school nearby.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

2. And so, Cameron's first victims are . . . (Independent)

Johann Hari argues that the Tories' cuts target the unemployed, poor kids, children in care, the elderly, the disabled and any feeble little steps we were making towards a low-carbon economy.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

3. Useless, jobless men -- the social blight of our age (Times)

Camilla Cavendish discusses the culture of dependency on benefits, arguing that the welfare system has produced an emasculated generation that can find neither work nor wife. Welfare has entrenched poverty.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

4. Spare Britain the policy hairshirt (Financial Times)

The OECD says the only big risk is a loss of fiscal and monetary "credibility". It is not, says Martin Wolf. The far greater risk is that the economy flounders for years. If that happened, eliminating the deficit would be very hard.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

5. Labour will be tempted. But this is no way to break the coalition (Guardian)

Labour will soon face a historic choice on the electoral reform vote, says Martin Kettle. The party does not have a good record of advancing its own strategic interests, but its wisest strategy will be to back the Yes campaign.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

6. Bad laws are putting prostitutes' lives in danger (Times)

Alan White argues that it is impossible to stop sex being sold on the street, so we must protect those who do it. Legalisation is not necessarily the solution to addicted street-workers, but better police practice might be.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

7. Merkel has joined Thatcher in Europe's corner shop (Financial Times)

If Germany succumbs fully to the British disease of calculating the value of European Union membership on an abacus, the whole project is doomed, warns Philip Stephens.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

8. North Korea -- the great unknown (Independent)

The world's last Stalinist regime is once again on the brink of conflict. What does North Korea hope to achieve by such posturing? We just can't know, says Rupert Cornwell.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

9. The real cost of cheap oil (Guardian)

John Vidal points out that the Gulf disaster is unusual only for having happened so near the US. Elsewhere, Big Oil rarely cleans up its mess. More than anything else, the industry dreads being made fully accountable to developing countries for the damage it has wreaked.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

10. BP shows the need for a rethink of regulation (Financial Times)

One thing is certain, writes David Scheffer: corporate self-regulation and public oversight have failed. We need to rethink how commercial firms operate in such a fragile world.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

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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.