Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron at the party's spring conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The next Lib Dem leader must come from the party's left

Rather than Jeremy Browne, the party needs a centre-left figurehead, such as Tim Farron, to revive its fortunes.

You can tell a series of elections are on the way, as speculation abounds again about the leadership of Nick Clegg and the future direction of the Liberal Democrats. I once, famously, and I admit wrongly, speculated about it myself on this very blog site when I wrote a post in anger (never a good thing to do) about Clegg.

Although I’m undoubtedly from a different wing of the party to him, I respect the leadership he’s shown on issues including our membership of the European Union and equal marriage. I accept that Clegg will likely lead our party into the 2015 general election and, possibly, beyond. But it’s a plain fact that one day he will stand down and a new leader will be elected. So, it’s on that basis that I suggest that the next leader of the party should come from its centre-left.

There’s no doubt that many people who consider themselves on the centre-left of the party- social liberals and social democrats -have left to join other parties or to be a member of no party because they couldn’t stand some of the things Lib Dem ministers were signing up to as part of the coalition.

But I’d still argue that the majority of the party’s membership remains - broadly speaking - on the centre-left of the political spectrum. Given some of what we’ve had to swallow, we’ve remained very disciplined, far more so than the disgruntled elements of the Tory party have.

I hope that whenever Clegg decides to stand down (and that could be years away) it’s an MP from the party’s centre-left who takes over. My personal choice for our next leader would be Tim Farron. His profile has slowly risen during his exemplary presidency of the party where he’s taken on the task of being the representative of the party’s left on a number of issues, from opposing the bedroom tax to always speaking up for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

We also shouldn’t count out Vince Cable. The argument that he’s “too old” is spurious and offensive. A more reasonable argument for him not succeeding Clegg is that, as Business Secretary in this coalition government, he’s just as responsible as the current Lib Dem leader for the bad bits of this administration’s record. But he certainly shouldn’t be ruled out.

Then there's Steve Webb, not much known outside Westminster yet but making a big name for himself and forcing through a number of significant Lib Dem wins in a notoriously difficult department.

As for potential candidates from the right of the party, my view is that Jeremy Browne has shot himself in the foot with his statements on various media platforms whilst promoting his book over the past week.  If what he’s espousing is “authentic liberalism” then I’d gladly be called an inauthentic liberal. I will never agree to further privatisation of our National Health Service or to an expansion of Free Schools.

I believe in an enabling state, which gives people opportunities, whatever their background or present circumstances, which provides certain services not for profit but because they’re basic fundamental services and which people already pay for in general taxation. Yes, I’m a social democrat and a social liberal and proud of it; two fine traditions in our party and flames which burn brightly despite the knocks they’ve taken in recent years.

I believe we, as a party, need to remember our founding beliefs and begin to live up to them. The preamble to our constitution states: “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

A party living up to those values is not ‘pointless,’ Mr Browne. It is vitally needed in a country where both of the two major parties prove time and again that they are far from liberal.

Mathew Hulbert is a Liberal Democrat Borough and Parish Councillor in Leicestershire

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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.