PMQs review: Cameron just wants to talk about Unite, but Bercow won't let him

The Tories go to war with the Speaker after he rebukes Cameron for ignoring a question in favour of an attack on the unions.

There was only one subject David Cameron wanted to talk about at today's PMQs: Unite and Len McCluskey. After one of Ed Miliband's strongest months as Labour leader, the Tories are determined to use the rows over Falkirk and Grangemouth to try and throw him off course.

It was the NHS that Miliband led on, laying down a marker by challenging Cameron to guarantee that there wouldn't be an A&E crisis this winter. Both leaders traded stats and slogans ("the NHS isn't safe in his hands", "Labour never stand up for the NHS") to little effect, with Miliband just about edging the PM. The Tories' fateful decision to impose Andrew Lansley's reforms on the service (for which they had no mandate) means they will find it harder to evade responsibility for the crises ahead.

Cameron ended the exchange by rather clumsily shoehorning in an attack on Unite, demanding "when is he going to understand his job is to stand up to the bully boys in Unite and show some courage?" And there was more to come. To one of the many planted questions from Tory backbenchers on the subject, he replied that Miliband was "behaving like the mayor of a Sicilian town towards the mafia – 'they put me in and I don’t want them to take me out'", a barb that drew some grudging smiles from Labour MPs.

But near the end of session, the PM overreached himself. After Labour MP John Cryer ended a question on employment tribunals by declaring, "I'm a trade unionist and I'm damn proud of it", Cameron responded by ignoring the original topic and launched another blitzkrieg against the union "bully boys" who "seem to condone intimidating families, intimidating witnesses and intimidating the leader of the opposition". This prompted a dramatic intervention from John Bercow, who acidly remarked: "it's a good idea to remember the essence of the question that was put". As the Labour frontbench motioned for Cameron to get to his feet again, the PM shook his head in exasperation. The tension rose later when he headed off another intervention from Bercow by declaring "I'm keen to answer the question, Mr Speaker!" and flashed him a look of contempt. The Tories have often accused Bercow of unfairly ruling against Cameron, but never has the PM so explicitly retaliated. Deputy chief whip Greg Hands continued the assault after the session by tweeting: "PMQs getting like Old Trafford. 5 minutes extra time in the hope that the Reds can score a late equaliser."

Yet however much they may dislike the messenger, the Tories would be wise to listen to the message. One can hardly blame them for seeking to take advantage of the Falkirk debacle but they shouldn't make the error of assuming that voters share their instinctive loathing of the trade unions. A recent Populus poll found that 69 per cent of the public agree that "it is important that Labour retains its strong links with the trade unions because they represent many hard working people in Britain", including 53 per cent of Tory voters, with just 28 per cent disagreeing.

The days when Ted Heath was forced to call an election to find out whether it was he or the unions "who ran Britain" (answer: the unions) are long gone. Today's general secretaries present a far less threatening face. If he wants to win converts, rather than merely rouse supporters, Cameron should avoid a repeat of today's monomania.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.