Prime minister Tony Blair's attempts to curry favour with business leaders by scoring cheap points at the expense of public service workers reveal an enigma at the heart of New Labour. There is an ironic contradiction between the traditional support for the grand institutions of public service, epitomised in the NHS, and the modern affinity for entrepreneurial competition. Essentially, this boils down to a division between the competing ideologies of collectivism and individualism, with the contemporary cult of the individual having the upper hand.
These tensions are seen at work in the government's dealings with nurses. A collective solution to nursing's ills would demand attention to pay and conditions across the board, at least as a starting point. Yet the government concerns itself with the creation of so-called 'supernurses'. This inevitably divisive initiative intends to reward only a few individuals.
Ministerial rhetoric is also interesting for what it reveals. After Mr Blair had uttered his wholesale denigration of public service workers during a speech to the British Venture Capital Association last July, Frank Dobson, the then health secretary, said on Radio 4's Today programme: 'I don't think what Tony was saying applied to nurses. They give tender loving care to patients as well as coping with all the new technologies on the wards.'
When the prime minister spoke of 'bearing the scars' inflicted by a group of people committed to resisting change, he was presumablytalking about all the other nasty public service workers who lack the cuddly appeal of nurses.
If New Labour opprobrium is not directed at nurses, why should we be worried? The answer lies in scrutiny of underlying ideological tensions and the power of language used by politicians to construct their relationships with groups of workers. The attack on public service employees as obstacles to change is easily refuted. The NHS, for example, has undergone numerous large-scale reorganisations in the past two decades, and continuously copes with the introduction of new technologies and associated working practices.
We contend that the real purpose of Mr Blair's rhetoric is a more sinister devaluation of the very idea of public service, and the values that this represents. This is rooted in the inability of New Labour to sustain an affinity for the collectivism, co-operation and mutuality which is embodied in a public service ethos, because the favoured value system privileges competition and individuality.
To justify strict limits on public sector spending and the privatisation by stealth of state welfare, the idea of workers' resistance must be painted as irrational, anachronistic and dangerous.
The preferred model of industrial relations would seem to be a workforce that welcomes all change as positive, and passively acquiesces in the face of threats to its collective well-being.
Regrettably, just such an image of nursing has suited the purposes of successive governments and employers.
Nurses have been popularly constructed as caring, vocational angels, disinclined to take action in defence of their interests. Significantly, with the government as employer, industrial disputes in the public sector are almost by definition politicised.
The recent trend towards fragmentation of organisation renders individual trusts ever more vulnerable to industrial action. This means public sector workers, including nurses, could be in the vanguard of more militant resistance to policies that threaten the welfare of colleagues and service users.
Indeed, the extent to which nurses can mobilise a range of resistive strategies ought to be seen as a progressive development.
1Not without irony, it can be argued that it is New Labour which truly embodies resistance to change for the sake of it, evidenced in the complete inability to jettison a Thatcherite view of public service.
Mick McKeown is principal lecturer, mental health nursing research, department of primary and community nursing, Central Lancashire University.
Dave Mercer is lecturer, department of nursing, Liverpool University.
1 McKeown M. Stowell-Smith M, Foley B. Passivity vs. militancy: a Q methodological study of nurses' industrial relations on Merseyside. J of Advanced Nursing, 1999; 3 0 (1): 140-149.