Lib Dem rebellion over cuts highlights post-2015 dilemmas

The decision by Tim Farron and four other Lib Dems to rebel against local government cuts is a reminder of the more open debate needed about the austerity to come.

Largely unnoticed, there was a small but significant Lib Dem rebellion over cuts to local government last night. Party president Tim Farron, former defence minister Nick Harvey, Andrew George, Stephen Gilbert and Adrian Sanders all voted against this year's funding settlement. Harvey, who led the rebellion, warned during the debate: 

The whole model of local Government funding is now so fundamentally broken that there needs to be a cross-party endeavour to rebuild something from scratch on a blank sheet of paper. The situation that we are in now is untenable. Somehow or other, Whitehall convinces itself that by putting this degree of hardship on to local government, the public anger at seeing some of the services that impact on their daily lives most directly will miraculously be focused solely upon the local authorities that send out the bill. I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends that I simply do not believe that that is a sound political calculation. The public are not stupid and they will see the difficulties that local government, regardless of the party running any particular council, is facing at this time, and they will hold central Government to be responsible for it.

He is right to highlight both the undesirability and the unsustainability of the huge cuts to local government. By the end of 2015-16, the budget of the Department for Communities and Local Government will have been reduced by a remarkable 60.6 per cent, with several years of austerity still ahead. On the current timetable, publicly-funded libraries, swimming pools, youth centres, museums and parks will soon cease to exist in parts of the country. 

The rebellion last night, then, is a reminder of the far more open debate needed over the pain to come after 2015. Vince Cable has long argued that it is untenable to ring-fence some areas (the NHS, pensions, schools, international development) from austerity, while cutting others (local government, working age welfare, universities, the police) to the bone. As he said last March, "You get a very unbalanced approach to public spending. I went along with the overall ringfencing approach in this parliament – as part of the coalition we have had to work as a team – but I think as a long-term approach to government spending, it isn't very sensible." But we have heard little from him, or any other major Lib Dem figure, on this subject recently. 

With the party set to back the triple lock on the state pensions, it is worth asking whether it will take the same approach to the NHS, schools and international development. Back in 2010, Nick Clegg declared: "We’re not entering into this dutch auction about ring-fencing. Good outcomes aren’t determined by drawing a redline around government departmental budgets." But more recently he has argued: "I am absolutely convinced that at a difficult time like this, protecting our NHS spending, protecting spending on schools and honouring our international obligations to developing countries around the world was a big decision, was a controversial decision but I think was the right one to take."

The alternative, of course, to cuts to protected departments is greater tax rises. But none of the measures proposed by Labour and the Lib Dems to date, such as a mansion tax or the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate, even come close to bridging the fiscal gap. As the IFS has warned, around £12.5bn of tax rises are required merely to keep departmental cuts at their current pace. One left-wing economist, speaking very much off-the-record, recently told me that the parties ultimately may need to discuss openly the possibility of raising the only taxes that reap reliably large revenues: the basic rate of income tax, National Insurance and VAT. But that is the kind of genuinely "tough choice" that all sides seem desperate to avoid before May 2015. 

Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron was one of five Lib Dem MPs to vote against cuts to local government. 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.