How will the coalition justify cuts to winter fuel allowance?

In an embarrassing revelation for the Conservatives, Vince Cable has confirmed that the benefit is u

The most important detail in Vince Cable's taped indiscretion is arguably not that he sees walking out of the coalition as his "nuclear option" – that much we knew – but the confirmation that the winter fuel allowance is under threat.

Talking to two reporters posing as constituents, the Business Secretary referred to the "cack-handed" way in which the scrapping of child benefit for higher earners had been handled, and said: "They haven't yet done the winter fuel payments, but that's coming, I think."

Winter fuel payments last surfaced as a political hot potato in August, when the Financial Times reported that the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, wanted to pare back some of the £2.7bn spent on winter fuel payments, a universal benefit paid to the over-sixties.

Yet retaining the benefit was a Conservative manifesto pledge, defended by David Cameron in the strongest terms during the televised debates:

We will keep the winter fuel allowance . . . These statements by Labour [that the Conservatives would cut the winter fuel allowance] are quite simply lies. I don't use the word "lie" very often, but I am using it today because they are lies.

The coalition agreement promises to "protect key benefits for older people", which is not the same as ring-fencing and does not preclude the possibility of restricting the number of people who qualify for them, as with child benefit.

While the coalition agreement has already shown itself to be flexible, such a U-turn on winter fuel allowance would be intensely embarrassing for the Conservatives.

It will be interesting to watch Downing Street's response to this latest claim: an outright denial that the benefit is under threat could come back to bite them, yet vagueness will also be seen as a climbdown from their previously unequivocal position.

As Britain faces the coldest winter on record and the news agenda is dominated by the "big freeze", this will be difficult to justify. We can be certain that the issue will not go away.

On a separate point, Cable's comparison of working with the coalition to "fighting a war" and his confidence that he could "bring the government down" raise questions over his future as a member of the cabinet. If he is pushed out or walks out and is replaced by David Laws, it would immeasurably tip the balance of power away from left-wing Liberal Democrats. His "nuclear" option might not have quite the desired effect.

UPDATE, 2.40pm: At a joint press conference this afternoon, the Prime Minister refused to rule out any further changes to the winter fuel allowance, saying only that the government has made its choice on the winter fuel allowance and that this won't be changing.

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.