Question Time's studio audience. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Left must speak to us all, not just our own aspiration

I was an "ordinary voter" during the election campaign. It gave me a terrifying window into the state of British politics.

In Labour’s post-defeat analysis, the most striking thing I’ve heard is Jon Cruddas on the simple, but fundamental point that the series of micro-policies the party strung together did not form a coherent whole. What was missing, he said, was an ‘overall, coherent, animated sense of who we are.’ In old fashioned times this was called an ideology, but one assumes that nowadays such terminology would frighten the horses. Bizarrely in fact, virtually anything overtly political seems to be perceived extremely scary, as I discovered during my pre-election stint as an ‘ordinary voter’ on various broadcast panels and programmes.

In their quest for ‘ordinary voters’ the broadcast media needs to demonstrate both ordinariness and balance, and the way they go about this also serves as a handy (if depressingly sheep-like) barometer of the national mood, or more precisely, of their perception of the national mood. And so, pre-show priming invariably involved an assessment of the percentage probability of which way we panelists were likely to vote and what issues were important to us.  So far so good. However it soon emerged that we had been selected for our personal circumstances and predicted responses, rather than for our political thinking. As someone running a social enterprise I was there to talk about VAT and business rates rather than the need to get rid of Trident, and whilst I wasn’t exactly gagged for sounding off about that, along with the shame of food banks and the dismantling of the welfare state, I did get several nervous ‘heads up’ that this type of talk was too ‘left wing’ and was therefore disrupting the carefully constructed balance. In order to keep to the ordinary agenda it would be better if I focused on issues that affected me.

This is extremely telling. In their role as barometers of the national mood, the message from the broadcasters is that the ordinary concerns of ordinary voters are largely personal, that people vote about things that directly affect them.

This is why food banks are deemed to be such a marginal issue – the percentage of people who actually use them is tiny, so what is everyone else bothered about?  Once you start talking about the social, economic, and political effects on the rest of society, not to mention a concern for the people who have use them, you’ve gone into ‘politics’ and spoilt the pre-constructed balance as well as over stepping the mark for an ordinary person.

When the broadcast media follows this path it ends up with ordinary people doing exactly what Jon Cruddas said of the Labour Party – they focus on a series of disconnected micro policies, largely domestically based, rather than an overarching direction and vision built on an analysis of how we got where we are. As it is ordinary people who vote, and who are the subject of the much vaunted focus groups and polls, which are apparently the main feeding ground for policy makers, you can see how reductive the whole process is.  Add to this is the frenzy over key marginals and the debate becomes ever narrower, especially when the broadcasters complete this unhealthy cycle by reading it off as ‘the national mood’ and reflecting it all back again.

This affects the left far more than the right, largely because the right has positioned itself as the status quo, and apart from a few platitudes about Queen, country and hard working families, it doesn’t need a thorough going narrative about who and what they are  - because they already are, they are the ‘establishment’ and it’s up to the challengers to come up with a compelling reason to get them out. Which clearly didn’t happen. Part of the problem is that politics itself has become depoliticized, reduced to a shopping list of promises, with the main parties parading as the personal shopper best-suited to meet your needs. This is the gated-community version of reality, where the ultimate goal is for individuals to cut themselves off from the rest of society, rather than having us see ourselves as inter-connected citizens with a stake in what goes on around us.

The post-election talk of aspiration is a manifestation of this atomisation, because it’s about personal aspiration, not aspiration for the common good. Unfortunately the lie, initiated by one M Thatcher, that there is no such thing as society, appears to have slipped in round the back when no one was looking and etched itself into some universal law. In the words of Bill Hicks - I wasn’t at that meeting. This means that progressive and left -leaning parties and organisations need to start from scratch and make the case that there is such a thing, as this is surely the basis of an ‘overall, coherent, animated sense of who we are’ that Cruddas is talking about. It would also help if politicians – and broadcasters – didn’t underestimate we ordinary voters so much. The idea that we can’t understand/stomach/care about/respond to a bigger vision is rubbish. It’s what we’re crying out for.

Julia Brosnan is Co-Director of Dovetail: the change-making agency, and a member of The Equality Trust. 

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.