Success story: Tim Farron at the Lib Dem party conference 2013. Photo: Getty
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Tim Farron, the Lib Dem with a difference

Enter Farron’s office and you soon notice the signs of his success – an award for best MP on one side, a prize for most social tweeter on another. It’s a far cry from his party as a whole.

Tim Farron is that increasingly rare political creature: a Liberal Democrat whose standing has improved since 2010. Enter his parliamentary office and you soon notice the signs of his success – an award for best MP on one side (he represents Westmorland and Lonsdale), a prize for most social tweeter on another. In the four years since the formation of the coalition government, the 44-year-old Lib Dem president has steered a shrewd course between loyalty and dissent. As a non-minister, he has been free to rebel on defining issues such as tuition fees, NHS reform and secret courts while remaining untainted by accusations of plotting.

When I begin our conversation by mentioning the fate of Lord Oakeshott, who was forced to resign after attempting to bring Nick Clegg down by leaking unfavourable polling, Farron offers a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger response. “I really like Matthew Oakeshott. I might be one of the very few people who still does. It was just unbelievably crass and foolish,” he says. “I hope there can be some way back for him.”

If coalition has been good for Farron, it has not for his party. Since 2010, the Lib Dems have lost a third of their members, 1,500 of their councillors, all but one of their MEPs, nine by-election deposits and as much as two-thirds of their previous opinion-poll support. One of the few consolations is the likelihood that the next general election will result in another hung parliament, offering the Lib Dems the chance to act once again as kingmakers. But while Clegg has ruled out support for anything short of full coalition, Farron argues otherwise. “When you go into negotiations with another party you have to believe – and let the other party believe – that there is a point at which you would walk away and when the outcome could be something less than a coalition, a minority administration of some kind. That is something we all have to consider.”

When the Lib Dems entered government they chose not to take ownership of entire Whitehall departments, a decision now widely viewed as a mistake. Farron sees wisdom in an alternative approach. “When you’re a smaller party, identity is everything . . . so if you pick two or three or four departments and you run them really well, then you’ve got a clear message to send to the electorate.”

For progressives, one of the biggest disappointments of the present coalition has been the near-absence of constitutional reform. Farron tells me that Lords reform has to come “immediately back on the table” in future coalition negotiations and suggests that proportional representation for local government should also be a priority. “What we should definitely do, which is what happened in Scotland, is to bring in STV [the single transferable vote] in multi-member wards for local government. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever not to do that, because the constituency
link argument doesn’t work; your average councillor is in a multi-member ward.”

I end by asking Farron the question he knows is coming: will he stand for the Lib Dem leadership the next time there is a vacancy? He is the bookies’ favourite and, according to a recent Liberal Democrat Voice poll, the members’ favourite to succeed Clegg. Farron replies, “I think anyone who is thinking about themselves at a time like this is incredibly selfish . . . I want Nick to lead us into the general election and beyond.” To translate: he’s ruling nothing out. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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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.