Where are the Milibandites when Ed needs them?

The Labour leader has to look like the head of a movement when he takes on Unite, not a lone crusader.

Political leaders are never short of unhelpful advice in a crisis. Wherever Ed Miliband turns he is told that he must be bold, that his actions must be decisive, that this deadly row with Unite and Len McCluskey could also be an opportunity, containing the seeds of renewed leadership and status.

I wrote something to that effect at the end of last week. Shortly afterwards, the messages started to come in from people who want Ed to succeed – aides and loyal MPs – saying, in effect, “yes, fine, but what?” Good question. Difficult question. A moment to reflect on how hard it is being leader of the Labour party.

Miliband’s team know they need to take charge of the situation. They know this is becoming a defining moment in the Labour’s leader’s bid to become Britain’s next Prime Minister. They know the outcome they need is Miliband emerging stronger, more clearly defined in the public imagination as a man not to be underestimated – a man whose hidden steel is revealed. What isn’t clear is how they get to there from where they are now.

The first thing they need to settle is the parameters of the battlefield. Is Ed Miliband’s leadership going to be proven in his capacity to deal with the small matter of alleged vote-rigging in Falkirk or the larger question of Unite’s explicit political strategy to influence Labour by exerting its financial and organisational muscle in candidate selections? Len McCluskey denies there was anything wrong with the Falkirk process. That is true, I suppose, once you accept that the job of getting as many Unite-dependent MPs in parliament overrides any other consideration of best practice. According to a solid Leninist ends-justifies-the-means view of the situation, Falkirk is, as some Unite officials declared it, “exemplary”. However, in terms of expressing the kind of political organisation Labour wants to be and be seen to be, Falkirk is a monumental disaster. As one party insider put it to me the other day, “the choice now is between open and closed. It’s two different kinds of politics.”

So Miliband needs to be clear about whether he is trying to close an institutional loophole or change an institutional culture. His article in this morning’s Observer suggests it is the latter, which is entirely the right choice. He makes the connection between Falkirk and general public alienation from politics. He makes the point that the main challenge for the wider labour movement is making itself relevant to successive generations of workers who may not be members of trade unions. So far so good.

Miliband also says Labour should “mend, not end” its link with the unions. That too is a sensible position to take. It is the only realistic option. The Labour leader is walking along a narrow ridge. On one side is the danger of capitulation to the McCluskey agenda, accepting that union money has a veto over party reform. But on the other side is the danger of embracing a definition of leadership cooked up by Labour’s enemies in the Conservative party and the Conservative press. They will set tests of aggression towards the unions that he will never pass, while vandalising his support base in the attempt. How well he navigates this challenge will be decided by the definition he chooses for the word “mend.” You can mend some things by covering them in gaffa tape. Or you can take them apart and put them back together again. I sense in this situation a major institutional revision is in order. Ironically, one test of its effectiveness may turn out to be creating a system that, had it been in place in 2010, would have led to a different outcome in the Labour leadership contest. Miliband may not like that feature of the debate, but he would be unwise to ignore it completely.

The Labour leader thought Len McCluskey and Tom Watson were on his side. It is clear they were not. Miliband’s real friends are the people who now come out clearly and visibly to say without equivocation that the culture inside the party must change and that they believe Ed is the man with the requisite moral judgement and political capability to do it. At the moment, there are not too many of those people around. When David Cameron gets into trouble he can normally rely on some cabinet heavy-hitters and retired big beasts to intervene on his side. (When John Major is on the Today programme it is normally a sign that Downing Street is feeling besieged.)

Who are the equivalent people closing ranks around Ed Miliband? He has lost the protection of the old Brown machine and the old Blair brigade is watching from the wings mouthing, “we told you so”. The Labour leader has supporters in the party. There is no shortage of MPs who wish him well and want him to succeed. They all do, to the extent that they want a Labour government and Miliband is the only leader they’ve got. The vital missing component from the project has always been the sense of a movement larger than Ed himself – the aggregate charisma of a bunch of people who are easily and clearly defined by shared purpose and shared belief. Three years after the election it is still hard to identify a prominent and powerful phalanx of ardent “Milibandites”. If they are out there, they now need to make themselves heard. Their leader needs them.

Ed Miliband. Photo: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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.