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Is the junior doctors’ strike the first strike ever to be supported by the Labour Party?

It’s complicated, but no.

Junior doctors are on strike, and the suggestion has been flying around that this event marks the first time in history that the Labour Party has supported a strike.

But this isn’t true.

Firstly, the party is not explicitly endorsing the strike. Secondly, the leadership’s attitude towards the strike – sympathy for the cause, but no formal support – is no different to the way Labour has approached strikes in the past, according to a number of labour historians.

Labour has criticised the government’s failure to negotiate with the British Medical Association. This characterises its response to the junior doctors' strike. For example, Jeremy Corbyn wrote a piece in The Observer slamming David Cameron’s cuts for driving the NHS and social care into crisis, but made no mention of backing the planned strikes. He then sent out a message on the morning of the strike via Facebook calling on the government to “apologise” and “negotiate” with the profession. Still no words of direct support for the strike.

Similarly, the shadow health minister Justin Madders wrote for the NS specifically about the strike – but not specifically backing it. The thrust of the piece, again, was the need to negotiate.

In the end, I asked the Labour press office if the party officially endorses the strike. This is the response I received, described to me as “the line we’ve taken”:

Justin Madders MP, Labour’s Shadow Health Minister, commenting on today’s industrial action by junior doctors, said:

“Nobody wanted to see today’s industrial action take place, not least junior doctors.

“However, Jeremy Hunt chose to pick a fight with the very people who keep our NHS running, and he has left them with no choice but to take this action. Junior doctors don’t want to become embroiled in a political dispute but the government’s refusal to listen to their concerns has led to this point.

“Any patient who has had their operation cancelled or appointment postponed today should be clear – don’t blame the junior doctors, blame Jeremy Hunt.”

Again, no explicit words of solidarity with the strikers.

So no, Labour Party policy is not to officially endorse this strike. Does it support it? Yes, that’s the suggestion in the comments made by frontbenchers and Corbyn.

Is that in any way different to the way the party has responded to strikes it doesn't oppose in the past? No.

“If you say it’s the first strike that Labour's ever supported, I think you’re on rather thin ice,” says Professor Keith Laybourn of the University of Huddersfield, who is President of the Society for the Study of Labour History.

“I think it’s spurious. Has the Labour party officially passed a resolution supporting the junior doctors? No. There’s no such thing as a general approval. [Saying it’s ‘unfortunate’] is the usual thing you do, because you don't want strikes – strikes are the last resort . . . [there have been] all sorts of strikes in which there would've been Labour leaders present, or active; Keir Hardie would have been there before the First World War, turning up and giving his support.

It's rare for the party to actually sit down and [give general support], because  they’d have to call a national meeting and say 'we support this strike'.

He adds:

“If you look at history, Labour parties certainly did endorse the actions of various groups and you'll find in the 1980s, when there were strikes occurring, pictures of Michael Foot, Labour leader, marching along with people protesting.

“If people are saying it's the first one the Labour Party has supported – a) it’s tacit support, just by nature you’re on the same territory, b) it’s simply not true in terms of the fact that, historically, Labour has supported many strike actions in a tacit and, in fact, an overt way in some cases.”

Dr Eric Shaw of the University of Stirling, an expert in Labour Party history, is “sceptical” about the claim. “This dispute is highly atypical and it would be foolish to generalise from it,” he adds.

In the past, often trade union officials and Labour Party officials have been one and the same, and so support for industrial action by members of the Labour Party – if not formal policy – has often been clear. Labour in opposition often offered mediation to settle strikes,” Professor Chris Wrigley of the University of Nottingham tells me.

Wrigley also gives examples of Labour supporting strikes at a local level: Battersea Labour Party let the Postal Workers use its offices in the 1970 or 1971 postal strike, as did Loughborough Labour Party the firemen in approx. 1982. Similarly Labour Party buildings locally were used in the 1972, 1974 and 1984-5 miners' strikes.

And David Morgan of the Socialist History Society recalls some Labour support for past healthworkers' disputes in the 1980s.

And it’s not just ordinary members. Frontbenchers have supported strikes – for example, then government ministers Denis Howell, Shirley Williams and Fred Mulley were at the picket line during the Grunwick strike of female factory workers in 1977. Leading Labour figures attended campaigns during the steelworkers' strike in 1980.

John Kelly, a professor of industrial relations at Birkbeck, adds, "how about the strikes of the early 1980s when Labour was led by the left wing Michael Foot? Or the 1989 ambulance drivers' strike?"

Even regarding the 1926 general strike, and the miners’ strikes of the 1980s – which the Labour leadership did not support – the party’s attitude to industrial action was not radically different to its indirectness today.

“They [Labour] were involved in the support for the general strike in 1926,” says Laybourn. “They tried to avoid it, but given that a lot of the Labour movement at that time was very much run by the trade unions, there was tacit support for it . . . [And] what was the position in the miners’ strike of 1984? Labour gave its tacit support to Arthur Scargill, even though they didn't like it. They wanted a settlement as soon as possible.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Daniel Hannan harks back to the days of empire - the Angevin Empire

Did the benign rule of some 12th century English kings make western France vote Macron over Le Pen?

I know a fair amount about British politics; I know a passable amount about American politics, too. But, as with so many of my fellow Britons, in the world beyond that, I’m lost.

So how are we, the monolingual Anglophone opinionators of the world, meant to interpret a presidential election in a country where everyone is rude enough to conduct all their politics in French?

Luckily, here’s Daniel Hannan to help us:

I suppose we always knew Dan still got a bit misty eyed at the notion of the empire. I just always thought it was the British Empire, not the Angevin one, that tugged his heartstrings so.

So what exactly are we to make of this po-faced, historically illiterate, geographically illiterate, quite fantastically stupid, most Hannan-y Hannan tweet of all time?

One possibility is that this was meant as a serious observation. Dan is genuinely saying that the parts of western France ruled by Henry II and sons in the 12th century – Brittany, Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, Aquitaine – remain more moderate than those to the east, which were never graced with the touch of English greatness. This, he is suggesting, is why they generally voted for Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen.

There are a number of problems with this theory. The first is that it’s bollocks. Western France was never part of England – it remained, indeed, a part of a weakened kingdom of France. In some ways it would be more accurate to say that what really happened in 1154 was that some mid-ranking French nobles happened to inherit the English Crown.

Even if you buy the idea that England is the source of all ancient liberties (no), western France is unlikely to share its political culture, because it was never a part of the same polity: the two lands just happened to share a landlord for a while.

As it happens, they didn’t even share it for very long. By 1215, Henry’s youngest son John had done a pretty good job of losing all his territories in France, so that was the end of the Angevins. The English crown reconquered  various bits of France over the next couple of centuries, but, as you may have noticed, it hasn’t been much of a force there for some time now.

At any rate: while I know very little of French politics, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the similarities between yesterday's electoral map and the Angevin Empire were a coincidence. I'm fairly confident that there have been other factors which have probably done more to shape the French political map than a personal empire that survived for the length of one not particularly long human life time 800 years ago. Some wars. Industrialisation. The odd revolution. You know the sort of thing.

If Daniel Hannan sucks at history, though, he also sucks at geography, since chunks of territory which owed fealty to the English crown actually voted Le Pen. These include western Normandy; they also include Calais, which remained English territory for much longer than any other part of France. This seems rather to knacker Hannan’s thesis.

So: that’s one possibility, that all this was an attempt to make serious point; but, Hannan being Hannan, it just happened to be a quite fantastically stupid one.

The other possibility is that he’s taking the piss. It’s genuinely difficult to know.

Either way, he instantly deleted the tweet. Because he realised we didn’t get the joke? Because he got two words the wrong way round? Because he realised he didn’t know where Calais was?

We’ll never know for sure. I’d ask him but, y’know, blocked.

UPDATE: Breaking news from the frontline of the internet: 

It. Was. A. Joke.

My god. He jokes. He makes light. He has a sense of fun.

This changes everything. I need to rethink my entire world view. What if... what if I've been wrong, all this time? What if Daniel Hannan is in fact one of the great, unappreciated comic voices of our time? What if I'm simply not in on the joke?

What if... what if Brexit is actually... good?

Daniel, if you're reading this – and let's be honest, you are definitely reading this – I am so sorry. I've been misunderstanding you all this time.

I owe you a pint (568.26 millilitres).

Serious offer, by the way.


Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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