Labour's acting leader Harriet Harman speaks at the party's HQ in Brewer's Green. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Has Harriet Harman just come out against Andy Burnham?

Labour's acting leader warns the party not to choose "somebody who we can feel comfortable with" but who can "command the confidence of the country". 

Harriet Harman is determined to use her time as Labour's acting leader to do more than merely mind the shop. She wants to move the party to what she regards as a more politically and economically credible position. This is causing tensions with others at the top of Labour. At the most recent shadow cabinet meeting, Andy Burnham warned against offering too little opposition to austerity, prompting Harman to reply: "But Andy, we lost that argument. You may have noticed that we lost the election." Burnham, in the words of one shadow cabinet member, "winced" in response and was not defended by any of his supporters. 

When asked about the exchange on The Sunday Politics, Harman's response was revealing: "I do say to all those people who are going to be voting in the leadership election, think not who you like and who makes you feel comfortable - think who actually will be able to reach out to the public and actually listen to the public and give them confidence, so that we can have a better result next time than we did last time. The point is not to have somebody who we can feel comfortable with, the point is to have somebody who can command the confidence of the country and that's what they should have in their mind. There's no point doing choice in a disappointed rage, we've got to be doing choice for the future."

Her answer sounded like a rejection of Burnham, the frontrunner, who has frequently been attacked as "the comfort zone" candidate and as "continuity Miliband". It could even be interpreted as an endorsement of Liz Kendall ("not to have somebody who we can feel comfortable with"), who is trailing in fourth place having adopted the toughest line of any of the contenders on the deficit and welfare. Harman will not formally endorse any candidate but by making her views so clear, she has intervened decisively in the debate. 

Labour's acting leader also used the interview to announce that the party would not oppose the reduced household benefit cap (£23,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere) or the two-child limit on tax credits. "We won't oppose the welfare bill, we won't oppose the household benefit cap, I mean, for example, what they've brought forward in relation to restricting benefits and tax credits for people with three or more children. What we've got to do is listen to what people round the country said to us and recognise that we didn't get elected - again ... They want us to listen to their concerns and we've got to recognise why it is that the Tories are in government and not us, not because people love the Tories particularly but because they didn't trust us on the economy and benefits. We have to listen to that and respond." 

Update: An aide to Harman emphasises that she made the same points in her speech at the outset of the leadership contest and that her words should not be interpreted as favourable or disfavourable to any candidate.

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.