Ed Miliband’s war on waste

How the Labour leader can make a convincing attack on wasteful public spending.

It feels like the Labour party is doing its best to park its tanks on the TaxPayers' Alliance lawn today. First Ed Balls calls for a tax cut, albeit a temporary one funded from borrowing. Then the Times reports that Ed Miliband is planning on attacking wasteful public spending. Don't worry about it, we won't resist the occupation, everyone is welcome. And like a good host handing around the lemonade, I'd like to offer a little advice on how they might make this agenda effective, and make it fit with their broader aims and objectives.

To make it convincing, they'll need to surprise people. If examples of waste sound too trivial or convenient then no one will be convinced. Or if calls for tax cuts are just another way of plugging the Keynesian line instead of a way to let taxpayers keep more money in their pockets, then the political results will be meagre. The party will need to surprise people a little to get their attention.

That doesn't mean they need to sacrifice their principles though. When £250,000 is spent on a shower for Nicolas Sarkozy at a three day EU summit in Paris - a luxury shower with air conditioning and surround sound - then torn out unused because he decides to wash at his normal place in the Élysée Palace ten minutes away, that is equally offensive whether you think the money should be left in people's pockets or spent on public services.

The best schemes to attack are the ones designed to satisfy some already fat special interest, at the expense of ordinary people. Too many Tories love that kind of thing because it gets a round of applause at the right CBI conferences. Look into some of the spending in the Local Enterprise Partnerships for example, a replacement for the Regional Development Agencies that most participants are only involved in as a vehicle to grab Government grants. Heseltine and his committee are going to hand money down like some Aztec emperor bestowing gold on grateful subjects, while other priorities are bleeding sacrifices. The way to help businesses isn't to take their money and then give it back to a favoured few.

The biggest opportunity which the Labour Party is missing at the moment is the Government's plans for a new high speed rail line. HS2 is hugely expensive, over £1,000 a family in total, so no one could doubt the fiscal significance of such an announcement. It won't deliver anything till 2026, and means foregoing opportunities to improve capacity in the shorter term, so services to places like Milton Keynes get more and more congested in the meantime. Even when it is finished many big towns like Coventry will get a worse service. There are more affordable alternatives that can be delivered more quickly and do more to ease congestion.

This is a scheme which will benefit a fortunate minority of passengers. Nearly half of all long distance rail journeys in Britain are made by people from households in the top income quintile. There is no reason to think HS2 will be much different. The business case has assumed a third of passengers are businessmen earning an average of £70,000. Why are the Government taxing the poor to pay for a rich man's train?

Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle is cleverly keeping her options open on this one. She told the Guardian "we rightly start with a blank sheet of paper - that sheet doesn't have a high-speed train line running through it". The last Government only started to work on the scheme under Andrew Adonis - the most ultra of Blairites. The Green Party are opposing it because of the lacklustre environmental case and the effective subsidy to the rich, their London Mayoral candidate Jenny Jones attacked it at a recent event we held bringing together the scheme's opponents.

There are other areas where the government are splashing taxpayers' cash with abandon. You can support International Development, but still question writing cheques to a Rwandan Government the Metropolitan Police thinks might be sending hit squads to London. You can support action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but wonder if we should really be putting £3 billion into a Green Investment Bank which won't be accountable to Ministers, Parliament or the public. Is more investment banking what the planet needs?

And that's before we get talking about taxes. The hideously complex tax code is as much of a burden on the poor as it is on the rich. Improving it will help create a system where everyone pays their fair share and time and money aren't wasted navigating the loopholes.

Failing that, just point and snigger when the police paint a car to look like a pumpkin on Halloween night, or when Cornwall Council plans to send 12 councillors on fact-finding trips to lap dancing clubs.

Matthew Sinclair is director of the TaxPayers' Alliance.

Matthew is the director of the TaxPayers' Alliance

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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.