HS2 vote: the Tory and Labour rebels

18 Conservatives and 11 Labour MPs voted against the new high speed line. But the real battle will come next spring.

Update: As I wrote, the Tories are making much of Ed Balls's absence from the vote, but Labour sources point out that Ed Miliband also didn't attend, along with most Labour MPs (it was a one-line whip). And, as no one has pointed out yet, nor did David Cameron.

HS2 has comfortably cleared its first parliamentary hurdle, with 350 MPs voting in favour of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill and just 34 against. The rebels included 18 Tories, a smaller number than originally expected, and 11 Labour MPs. But today's division was a mere hors d'oeuvre to the main vote next spring on the Hybrid Bill (which would grant the government the power to compulsorily purchase the land required to build and operate the new line), with many would-be opponents choosing to stay away. Among those not present, as the Tories have mischievously noted, was Ed Balls, who sparked the recent speculation that Labour could come out against the project when he declared in his conference speech, "the question is – not just whether a new High Speed line is a good idea or a bad idea, but whether it is the best way to spend £50 billion for the future of our country."

But after David Cameron's threat to cancel the project if Labour withdraws its support, the party does appear to be back on board. In her speech to the Commons, shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh described Labour as "the the true friends of HS2" and ended by vowing, "it will fall to the next Labour government – on time and on budget." This suggests, as I wrote earlier this week, that Labour's focus is now on pushing the government to reduce the cost of the line (most notably the £14.4bn contingency fund) and on claiming victory if it succeeds in doing so. By taking aim at the spiralling cost of HS2 ("all they've done since coming to office is add £10bn to it," Andrew Adonis recently complained to me), the party is seeking to demonstrate its commitment to fiscal responsibility and to dispel the belief that it believes the answer to every problem always lies in spending more money.

Below is a full list of the Labour and Tory rebels.

Conservative rebels (18)

Steve Baker

John Baron

Andrew Bridgen

Dan Byles

Willliam Cash

Christopher Chope

Philip Davies

David Davis

Cheryl Gillan

Philip Hollobone

Chris Kelly

Jeremy Lefroy

Julian Lewis

David Nuttall

Mark Pawsey

Chris White

Bill Wiggin

Teller: Anne Main

Labour rebels (11)

Jeremy Corbyn

Jim Cunningham

Frank Dobson

Natascha Engel

Jim Fitzpatrick

Roger Godsiff

Kate Hoey

John McDonnell

Geoffrey Robinson

Barry Sheerman

Dennis Skinner

Teller: Kelvin Hopkins

A 'Stop HS2' poster is fixed to a tree in the countryside surrounding the village of Middleton in Staffordshire. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of 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.