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19 January 2016

So the banks brought the world to its knees but it’s junior doctors who are holding us to ransom? I don’t buy it

Bob Crow was a bully for securing better pay deals for Tube workers; a CEO who delivers bigger profits for his shareholders is a hero.

By Helen Lewis

If I had any doubts about the junior doctors’ strike, they were dispelled by the Sun’s hatchet job on 10 January. The paper – which, like all newspapers, is exclusively staffed by vegan, teetotal hermit monks on the minimum wage – trawled through the Facebook pages of junior doctors who are also reps for the British Medical Association, the industry’s trade body. It brought us the shocking news that some of them were “champagne-swilling” (translation: champagne-drinking) “socialists” (translation: advocates for better pay and conditions). Others had the temerity to “enjoy lavish holidays and parties” (go abroad, go to the pub) and some even “own £500,000 homes” (otherwise known as the average price of a home in London).

Inevitably, the story provoked a backlash, with young medics sharing photos of themselves eating ready-meals and drinking cheap beer in run-down hospital accommodation. “WORKSHY #juniordoctor finds time to procreate not once but twice,” tweeted one, sharing a picture of her with her two young children.

This kind of piss-taking was what social media was made for but the images of broken toilet walls and grim takeaways weren’t the photographs I found most interesting. A few brave souls had posted pictures of themselves doing the exact thing that their colleagues had been monstered for: having fun. “Here’s me with a kangaroo. Those jeans are also mine,” tweeted Denise McKeegan
from Northern Ireland. “Sometimes I go outside . . . Don’t tell the Sun.” In the relative privacy of Facebook, many went further, brazenly admitting that they had not only gone on foreign holidays but enjoyed them.

And why shouldn’t they? Why doesn’t the left have a better answer to the suggestion that if a job involves any social conscience whatsoever, its holder should be too embarrassed to ask for anything more than the minimum possible payment? Bankers need big bonuses, we are told, or they won’t get out of bed – the only thing that motivates them is money and we can’t have limits on sky-high executive pay, because then businesses will struggle to recruit the best talent. In the public sector, on the other hand, teachers and nurses and social workers and firefighters should be happy with a rock-bottom salary and the simple reward of a job well done. Wanting enough money to buy a house, eat a meal in a restaurant once in a while, or even – gasp! – have a glass of champagne occasionally is grotesque, untrammelled greed. Bob Crow was a bully for securing better pay deals for Tube workers; a CEO who delivers bigger profits for his shareholders is a hero.

This dualism is stupid and unfair to the many bankers and private-sector workers who are motivated by more than just money. Most of us aspire to have a job that interests us, makes us feel useful and valued and pays us more than the bare minimum needed to survive. The right makes a virtue of aspiration – the idea that parents want their children to do better than them, that people want to work hard and be rewarded – but what is all that hard work for, if not the idea that future generations might enjoy their lives and leisure time as well as feed and clothe themselves?

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Before we go on, we should pause to consider the figures we are talking about in the latest NHS dispute. The basic starting salary for a junior doctor is £22,636, although overtime and geographical weighting often takes that closer to £30,000. That is less than the UK median wage of roughly £27,000 and it is paid to graduates with some of the best A-level results in the country, who have studied for five or six years, often taking on tens of thousands of pounds of debt to do so. In return for that wage, doctors work long shifts and unsociable hours and perform a role in which they can literally kill people. (I keep coming back to that, thinking of the most catastrophic error I’ve ever made at work. It probably involved something like a misspelled headline. Whatever it was, no one died.)

I’m feeling extra feisty about this, having just seen The Big Short, the film version of Michael Lewis’s book about the few investors who foresaw the crash in the American mortgage market in 2007/2008, when thousands of people defaulted on loans that they should never have been sold in the first place. In the big banks, groups of people created financial instruments, such as collateralised debt obligations, which were so tortuously complex that no one understood them, not even the buyers or sellers. Then they sold them to each other, creating a system in which everyone’s huge debts were so interlinked that governments had no option but to bail them out when the market went south, because the alternative was the probable collapse of the global financial system. Now that’s holding the country to ransom. Not asking for more money if you are expected to work routine weekend shifts.

Solidarity is an overused word on the left and expressing it can feel like a cliché – a cheap substitute for doing anything – but the doctors’ strike does demand our solidarity. Yes, they could all stop whining and become shelf-stackers but: a) that would be a waste of all the public money spent training them and b) it’s not going to make anyone else’s job pay more if we pay doctors less. As it is, NHS doctors are already paid substantially less than they could get through private practice, or by emigrating to one of the many English-speaking countries that would be only too delighted to have them. You’ll notice that the free marketeers are suspiciously silent on this issue: the “going rate” for a senior registrar is far more than they are getting.

Instead, we are told to hate doctors because they have holidays and homes and access to carbonated alcohol. It’s a tactic designed to undermine support for the NHS and the left should have no part of it. 

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This article appears in the 13 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie