Andrew Whitaker: Junior doctors striking blow to austerity

Junior doctors in England went on strike yesterday over the imposition of controversial new contracts. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Junior doctors in England went on strike yesterday over the imposition of controversial new contracts. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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CAMERON seems intent on taking a hard line with junior medics despite their widespread public support, writes Andrew Whitaker

Most governments that have remained in power for more than one term in recent decades have had a big industrial clash with a trade union or a run-in with public service representatives, whether it was about pay, conditions or cuts to provision.

With Margaret Thatcher it was of course the miners, who the Tory prime minister referred to as “the enemy within” in a speech to her MPs during the bitter battle with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) over pit closures in 1984-85.

Thatcher had plenty of other public service foes, with ambulance workers and teachers as well as sections of the medical profession all locking horns with her governments at one time or another.

John Major’s governments, which would last for seven years despite being gripped by permanent crises, largely carried on where Thatcher left off with much the same approach to unions, notably presiding over the end of what was left of the mining industry in the early 1990s.

Tony Blair’s government had a bitter battle with the firefighters in 2002-03 in what was the first nationwide stoppage by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) since the late 1970s.

Gordon Brown’s government, whatever troubles it had, presided over a period of relative industrial calm with no major disputes during its three years in power.

The Tory-Lib Dem coalition, despite presiding over heavy-duty austerity, also was not really in power long enough to have had a major political industrial battle in the way Thatcher and Blair did, however inclined David Cameron and Nick Clegg may have been towards a stand-off with organised labour.

Both Thatcher and Blair’s confrontations, the former’s being much more significant in the case of the miners’ dispute, were at the height of their powers after decisive second election victories.

It’s perhaps in light of their re-election last May that Cameron and his health secretary Jeremy Hunt see a chance to flex their muscles by digging in their heels in the battle with junior doctors in England, following last week’s 24-hour strike over the imposition of controversial new contracts. The Tories have now threatened to impose the contract on junior doctors from August, which the British Medical Association, representing doctors, says will leave juniors up to 30 per cent worse off. The BMA yesterday suspended a further planned 48-hour stoppage next Tuesday to allow it to continue with talks with the UK government through the arbitration service ACAS.

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However, Cameron had appeared hell-bent on a battle this week, with his suggestion that junior doctors could be unilaterally forced by the government to accept a new contract they did not agree to, stating in an interview on BBC Radio 4: “We can’t rule that out because we can’t simply go into a situation where the junior doctors have a complete veto and block over progress in our NHS.”

It was perhaps such language that led the BMA to warn of more strikes despite the decision to call off next week’s stoppage, stating yesterday that “significant, concrete progress will need to be made if future action, currently planned for 10 February, is to be averted”.

The dispute does not apply in Scotland, where there is a perception the SNP government has a much more consensual approach to those who work in the NHS.

But what’s playing out could make for a fairly decisive fight over Cameron and George Osborne’s austerity agenda with ramifications for all parts of the UK, particularly given that the Prime Minister appears to have upped the stakes in the dispute.

Strikingly when referring to the possibility of imposing the contracts, Cameron stated: “This is all a matter for discussion between the BMA and NHS authorities but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

It’s language not that different to the spin that came from Thatcher during the 1984-85 miners strike, when Tory ministers insisted the dispute was a matter between the British Coal Board and the NUM.

The BMA is hardly the NUM, most obviously with it not being affiliated to the trade union umbrella body The Trades Union Congress and the fact that in truth it’s very much a self-styled professional body, as well as being an extremely wealthy and influential one at that.

It’s hard to imagine the full strength of the British state being deployed against junior doctors in the way it was against the miners, with a semi-militarised police force being used against angry medics picketing hospitals. Dr Mark Porter, the council chair of the BMA, who has been the public spokesman for striking medics, is not exactly in the mould of Arthur Scargill.

However, it’s worth pointing out that one of Rupert Murdoch’s UK titles directed attacks at BMA officials that had echoes of the coverage received by the former NUM leader more than 30 years ago.

Some of the BMA reps were described as “champagne-swilling socialists” and pictured taking a supposedly “lavish holiday”, no doubt in an attempt to suggest that this negates any points the strike leaders may make against Tory health policy.

Cameron appears intent on taking a hard line with the junior medics, who appear to have solid public support, with many voters more inclined to take the side of doctors rather than that of a Tory party which remains unloved despite its re-election.

Cameron and Osborne have already been forced into U-turns over policies like the tax credits cut.

However, a forced Tory reversal on the NHS would be a major blow to a government that appears to believe the 36.9 per cent share of the vote it polled in last year’s election represented an unqualified endorsement of its austerity agenda.