The Conservative Party won a majority at the election and have sought to govern based on their ideological convictions. As well as a number of frankly Orwellian policies that redefine language, penalise workers for organising, and engaging in doublethink regarding the economy (it’s apparently booming but also incredibly fragile). But one of the policies that is causing consternation is one that began under the Coalition. The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has somehow proven himself to be more inept than Andrew Lansley, began to draw contract changes for junior doctors in 2012 but talks broke down last year. This development is significant as unlike other industrial disputes, the wider public, when informed of the ins and outs of the dispute, are overwhelmingly against the government.
So what is the dispute about? The BMA, which is the doctors’ trade union, opposes the government’s proposals because they do not improve the working hours of many doctors, they do not recognise unsociable hours as premium time, they do not have safeguards to protect both patients and doctors, and a host of other things regarding pay and working conditions. One of the main criticisms of the proposals has been around safeguards to prevent doctors from working an unhealthy amount of time, as this is both bad for the doctor and could well be very damaging to patient care.
The government have tried to do use the same tactics with the BMA as they have done with other trade unions such as ‘encouraging dialogue’ and ‘denouncing strike action as bad the rest of society’ however, unlike with say transport workers, the public are not on the government’s side. Since the 1980s trade unionists have been demonized by the media as being greedy lefties that want a higher salary, and part of this, I believe, is projection from capitalist conservatives that are motivated by money; this was shown in the last few days when Jeremy Hunt announced that his new offer would contain an 11% pay rise for junior doctors. Unfortunately for Hunt that isn’t flying as firstly this pay rise is in conjunction with working longer hours, and, although junior doctors’ pay is too low, this wasn’t the main cause of the dispute.
Indeed, the reason the public are on the side of the doctors is that this caricature of trade unionists has been trumped by something that is actually true: people don’t become doctors to become rich, they do it to help people. Because this is widely accepted by everybody as an aspect of the medical profession, the public are reacting exactly as the Tories wouldn’t have expected. The public are siding with the doctors because they understand that the situation must be so bad that even people who are compelled by an almost sacred oath to help the sick, are being balloted for strike action.
This support among the public is rising even further as a result of the spread of information. Due to society’s general disdain for trade unions, the initial reaction of many people was that doctors shouldn’t go on strike because it would threaten patients. But when it is pointed out that some junior doctors are working over 90 hours a week, much of which isn’t paid, and that they can’t negotiate with the government as 22 of the 23 conditions are non-negotiable, the public understandably urn on the government. Furthermore, when it is also pointed out that the government could simply impose the new contracts on the junior doctors without their approval, people hit the roof.
The main reason that this is such an important issue is that junior doctors are the future of the NHS, and it will be these courageous, selfless professionals that will care for all of us at some point in the future. Yet survey after survey, and poll after poll has found that morale among junior doctors is through the floor, and that more doctors than ever before are contemplating leaving the NHS. As was pointed out on Question Time a less than a week ago by the Green Party’s Jenny Jones “all the investment and time gone into training these doctors would be wasted”. As well as this practical and financial argument, there’s also the obvious patient oriented argument. The government says that doctors shouldn’t go out on strike because it will impact patients, yet they these contracts would essentially force doctors who are almost suffering from clinical exhaustion to carry on working thus putting patients at risk.
But once again the government, thinking that it won a majority of public opinion at the election rather than a majority of seats, has overstepped the mark in the assumption that the country is more right-wing than it is. When you have a situation where the Chair of the Health Select Committee, Tory MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, opposing the government, along with the Daily Express and the overwhelming majority of the Daily Telegraph’s Comments Section, the government may want to reconsider as this negative media coverage, along with the recent desire to cut tax credits are once again portraying the Tories as the ‘Nasty Party’. If you ignore all the financial and logic arguments against the plan, the government should not do it for political reasons as this row over junior doctors feeds into Labour’s narrative of the NHS being in danger under the Tories. For a political party as good at the game of politics as the Tories, this last few weeks have been atrocious.
To conclude, we need to stand with our brothers and sisters in the medical profession to prevent being exploited by the government, but also in order to prevent patients from being put at risk. As a society we cannot say that we love the NHS and continue to allow the Tories to keep putting it at risk. The task for Labour is to hammer home every single time there is a media outlet covering them that the Tories cannot be trusted on the NHS and link it to other issues.
Labour should make the point that if this goes through, more doctors will leave the NHS and this would be a waste of money. Also the NHS would then have to rely on foreign doctors which may not be available, and in the meantime patients would be put at risk. Labour needs to push as hard as possible on the NHS to make it the issue of the next few months, and if they do this they will almost guarantee themselves a boost in the polls, thus challenging ideas that a Corbyn-led Labour Party is unelectable.
Junior doctors are the future of the NHS and if the Tories are allowed to impose these reforms it would be disastrous for the Health Service and for the wider economy, as productivity would fall due to ill health. As long as the public remain aware of this issue and loud in its opposition, the government will have no option but to rethink its strategy, and if it does press on with contracts without doctors’ approval and strikes take place, their popularity will collapse and Corbyn’s Labour Party won’t look so unelectable after all.