George Osborne and David Cameron speak to business leaders at the AQL centre on February 5, 2015 in Leeds. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Osborne's courting of the silver vote shows the Tories' limited ambition

The Conservatives are more focused on winning back traditional supporters than attracting new ones. 

Like his predecessor but one, Gordon Brown, George Osborne is an intensely political Chancellor. Wherever possible, economic policies are designed to advance electoral aims. That is the case with today's announcement that the government's pensioner bonds scheme will be extended by three months. The bonds, which pay an interest rate of 2.8 per cent for one year and 4 per cent for three years, have been purchased by 610,000 over-65s since they were launched last year, making them "the most successful saving product this country had ever seen" (as Osborne told Andrew Marr this morning). 

There is a simple explanation for the largesse showered on the elderly: they vote. In 2010, 76 per cent of over-65s turned out, more than any other age group, with the Conservatives polling 44 per cent among them - a 13-point lead over Labour. But the surge in support for Ukip among pensioners (nearly 60 per cent of the party's supporters are over-55) means the Tories need to work to win them back. In addition to Osborne's gifts, they have pledged to triple-lock the state pension (so that it increases by the rate of inflation, average earnings or 2.5 per cent, whichever is highest), and will almost certainly continue to protect universal benefits such as Winter Fuel Payments, free bus passes and free TV licences.

There is anger among the libertarian right at this preferential treatement. The IEA's head of public policy Ryan Bourne wrote of the pensioner bonds: "This comes at a time when the government could borrow by issuing three-year bonds with yields of around 0.6 per cent. In other words, the government is deliberately borrowing more expensively than it needs to, guaranteeing a healthy return for pensioners who are wealthy enough to be able to purchase up to the £10,000 limit. No wonder the registration website keeps crashing.

"This bond issuance is not just misguided because it crowds out other investment activity. Borrowing more expensively than the government needs to is effectively a direct subsidy to wealthier pensioners from the working-age population. Though in the grand scheme of things this will only be a subsidy to the tune of hundreds of millions, rather than billions, the likely cost of this policy will be as high as several of the controversial welfare eligibility changes which the government claimed were absolutely necessary to help improve the public finances."

But as well as the morality of this approach, the Tories should consider the politics, too. Courting the silver vote may make short-term sense but if they are to ever win a majority again, the Conservative need to do far more to appeal to the young, a group among whom they currently struggle. The Tories are fond of deriding Labour’s alleged "35 per cent strategy", under which a coalition of the party’s core supporters and Lib Dem defectors allow it to crawl over the electoral finish line – yet today's announcement is a reminder of their own limited ambitions. The grey vote might enable the Tories to cling on as the single largest party but it offers no route to a majority. 

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.