A Labour campaigner during the last days of the 2015 election campaign. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Labour were beaten, yes, but we're not dead

Labour were knocked back last month, but we can rebuild, and we must. 

I failed the 11+.

To say that it was a blow would be a bit of an understatement.

I was born and brought up in Small Heath. It’s one of the poorest areas of the city of Birmingham and it’s where I still live today. Birmingham then, as now, operates a grammar school system.
My parents are first generation immigrants from Kashmir who ran a corner shop in Small Heath. With four children at home my Dad also worked a day job. Despite the challenges we faced, my parents always encouraged us to aim high and that meant university. As a teenager my heart was completely and utterly set on one thing. I was going to be Kavanagh QC. Well a Muslim, female version at any rate.
To fulfil this dream I thought I needed to win a place at Oxford and for that I thought I needed a place at the grammar school. But I had failed, which is a pretty crushing blow for any 11 year old.

I eventually made it to Oxford where I studied law and became a barrister. The point is that things don’t always work out quite the way we plan and failure is not always indicative of total disaster.
The Labour Party did not plan to lose the election. We certainly did not think that the Conservatives would form a majority government.
But we did, and they have.
Sure there are challenges and I don’t underestimate the scale of the task ahead. We have big questions to ask about our approach to the economy and our relationship with business.

But the narrative that is taking a hold is that the Labour Party is in chaos. Let’s learn one lesson from the summer of 2010; if we allow ourselves to be defined before we define ourselves then it will stick however far from the truth it is.
We are not in trouble. Nor are we in chaos. We are having a perfectly reasonable leadership contest. If we are to be in the race in 2020 it’s important we face up to our failings in an open, transparent and inclusive way. Quite frankly, the next leader of the Labour Party should be up to this level of scrutiny.
Whilst there is no shortage of opinions about why we lost and where to go from here, what we are already seeing is the emergence of some consensus on our approach to the economy and business. Differences between candidates exist on a myriad of other issues from free schools through to Labour’s involvement in the EU campaign. But, on the economy, what is increasingly evident is a collective realisation that our relationship with the business community - big, medium and small – needs to be reset. 

Our economic offer was too narrow. Do I disagree that the minimum wage should be raised or that exploitative zero-hour contracts should be banned? No of course not, these measures should always be part of a Labour manifesto. But should they have been all we spoke about? The Tories cut the 50p rate of tax but they didn’t spend all their time talking about it.
If we want to be the workers party for now, then we have to be the workers party for the 4.5 million self-employed, the business owner, the public sector worker and the low paid. Our policies have to reflect the fact that there are 31 million people employed in this country and most of those jobs are in the private sector. And what do most people actually want? At its most basic, most of us want a good job (for ourselves and our family members), then the opportunity to get a better job and a helping hand or a second chance if things go wrong.

That means as a party we need to push relentlessly policies that focus on economic growth, productivity and the high-tech, high-skill jobs of the future – something we’ve been hearing a lot about as we choose our new leader.
Our policies also have to show an understanding of what it means to live these lives. And why shouldn’t they? For many us in the Labour movement these lives are our lives. My first experience of work was helping in our corner shop; going to the cash and carry, helping with the stock checks and serving behind the till. At home, watching my dad working two jobs and every hour God sent to provide for me, my mum and my brothers and sisters.
The lessons I learnt then are still with me now. I learnt about budgeting and money, about the value of hard work, about the importance of determination and graft. I learnt the importance of obligation and loyalty. These are the values I share and understand. These must be the values of Labour.

 

Shabana Mahmood is Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Shabana Mahmood is Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood.

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.