BMA staff to strike

How staff at the the British Medical association, the 'trade union' for British doctors, are plannin

The stereotype of the junior doctor caring for you after her tenth cup of coffee and working into the 14th hour of a shift is happily no more, and this is in no small part thanks to the efforts over the last 20 years of the British Medical Association, the trade union for doctors. Indeed, the organisation still plays a huge role in our lives; by continually ensuring that the standard of training for UK doctors remains the highest in Europe; and the more controversially, securing contracts for GPs and consultants that have been blamed by government for using a large chunk of the extra funding given to the NHS.

But the organisation’s credibility took something of a knock this week when its own staff, themselves members of the GMB union, balloted to strike in protest at the imposition of performance related pay (PRP). Which, to add to the irony, is a concept that the BMA has successfully argued against when mooted by successive governments for the medical profession itself.

Public opinion and the moral high ground are huge weapons in any trade union’s arsenal, and even more so for a profession that has such a crucial role in maintaining the public’s health and safety. With public opinion still cold from the undoubtedly generous contract awards in the past few years, will this affect the most efficient professional body in the UK?

One staff member, who does not wish to be named, is in no doubt: “The organisation is representing doctors who do not like PRP, and we would not accept this as an organisation for our members, but they have imposed it on the staff and the staff feel so strongly about it that they are taking strike action.

“I think it is embarrassing and might make life difficult for the BMA. I suspect it will be thrown into discussion for any negotiation with government. It will be embarrassing at best and difficult at worst.”

One of the biggest gripes that the staff have had is the management refuses to discuss their concerns. Dave Kent, the GMB official for London, says: “They have not been receptive to our concerns at all. Frankly, we wouldn’t have had to have gone to the bother of a ballot for industrial action otherwise. We’ve tried to negotiate on this issue, but the BMA management does not wish to negotiate.”

Of course, frosty relations between management and staff is a common place scenario throughout the country, but it does take on particular relevance when the principal function for that organisation is securing the best working conditions for its employees through engaging with the employers. Mr Kent says: “We have raised the fact that the BMA have rejected the concept of PRP with the management. It seems hypocrisy in the extreme for the BMA to take the stance that it does with government regarding PRP and then inflict PRP on its own employees. Quite hypocritical.”

BMA officials, the doctors themselves, are refusing to publicly discuss the matter. However, Brian Butler, director of communications, believes that the organisation’s role as a trade union does not give the dispute any particular relevance. He says: “I don’t see why it should make negotiations with the government tougher. It is an internal matter between management and staff at the BMA. I don’t see that the two matters are related at all. It does not make any difference with doctors negotiating with government.”

This is not how the staff see it, however: “How can it not backlash against the BMA? This isn’t the sort of thing they would accept for their members, yet they are imposing it on their staff.” Although the issue of staff anger over PRP itself may not be incredible, there is a sense that the BMA management is over confident in believing that it can take the dual roles of unflinching employer and guarantors of employees’ rights. Like that junior doctor of yesteryear, their internal turmoil – be it staff turning against them, or an exhausted set of limbs – may necessarily affect their ability to function.

Jaimie Kaffash began his writing career working for a magazine for British ex-pats in Sydney. He now freelances from the less exotic climes of Kentish Town, north London, taking particular interest in Australian politics and the growing tribulations of Arsenal Football Club.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times