Public opinion has so far has been sympathetic to junior doctors, but these shallow sentiments could easily switch, writes Michael White
Since we downsized to a flat we live within rooftop sight of our local hospital. Not that its A&E department will be there for much longer. But it meant that I got leafleted by some medics outside the tube station on 12 January – the day of strike number one.
Under the heading “The truth about the junior doctors dispute” the leaflet made their case: it is about patient safety, they do not want to strike for the first time in 40 years, “but the government has left them with no alternative”.
It is the sort of spiel that makes me almost as uncomfortable as the misuse of the adjective “junior” in this context.
Safety, not pay
I suppose the British Medical Association’s strike planners have been studying the rail union playbook - train drivers also prefer to stress passenger safety, not pay. Such claims are self-evidently rarely correct, at a generous best only partially so.
“In war, someone remarked, truth is the first casualty”
In war, someone remarked long ago, truth is the first casualty.
And so it is here. Ministers have been widely criticised for the way they used complex data about higher weekend hospital mortality rates. Doctors’ claims about reduced pay under Jeremy Hunt’s proposals have also been robustly contested.
Claims and counter claims
In the newspapers and on TV we have also seen some highly tendentious claims made by partisans on both sides.
This included an apoplectic denunciation of a left-wing and “politicised” BMA leadership by a retired NHS consultant, Russell Hopkins, who made some glib party points of his own. He was publicly contradicted by his own doctor daughter, Claire.
“Times have changed, dad,” was her message.
One change, rarely discussed outside the specialist press for the past 20 years, is that the majority of medics in expensive training now are women. They value the work/life balance better than men.
In a typically level-headed pre-strike article, Dr Sarah Wollaston, GP/MP and chair of the commons health select, urged ministers to back down on the 10pm definition of normal working on a Saturday night (they have finally done so) and not to push doctors too far in “footing the bill themselves” for 7/7 working changes.
Her own doctor daughter is not on strike because she has left for Australia, where her new colleagues are all Brits.
The law of unintended consequences means George Osborne’s squeeze (fairness or austerity?) on middle class pension perks may increase NHS emigration and early retirement.
“Osborne’s squeeze may increase NHS emigration”
What I said to my leafleting doctor (I don’t think he’s ever given me an internal examination) was “Good luck, but be careful”.
After five years of austerity (less for the NHS) public opinion so far has been fairly sympathetic to the doctors. But one awful death that can be laid at their door could easily switch shallow sentiments.
Jeremy Hunt is no demagogue, but he could always seek help. Tory propaganda maestro, the Australian Lynton Crosby, must be itching to earn his knighthood. They organise healthcare differently in Oz.
Westminster gossip of Hunt being moved elsewhere in Whitehall strikes me as decidedly premature, let alone that he might be replaced by Boris Johnson.
Talented showman that he is, the London Mayor has shown no aptitude for managing those bolshie rail unions (still no 24/7 tube trains, eh, Boris?). The chatter may just be mischief making by Osborne’s lackeys.
But from Hunt’s standpoint the potentially useful development before the two sides resumed negotiation to avoid strike number two and even three was the Corbynite intervention on the BMA’s side, not a frequent alliance since Nye Bevan’s famous 1948 clash.
“Note the distinction, Corbynite, not Labour”
Note the distinction, Corbynite, not Labour. My hunch is that Heidi Alexander, Jeremy Corbyn’s new health spokesman (she must dream Jeremys), can get away with backing the docs – not something the party often did in the New Labour years.
After all, she is a moderate with a “Save Lewisham hospital” campaign medal in her South London constituency.
Alexander also has a cheerful bedside manner, warm and smiling on TV, clearly not daft either. These things matter.
Walking a tightrope
I would not apply that label to some BMA militants seeking to bring down “the entire edifice of austerity in the UK”. Nor to Momentum activists who were joined by shadow chancellor John McDonnell on picket lines at Tommy’s just opposite Westminster.
Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon has a winning TV manner too, but she might be wiser not reminding English voters how much happier Scottish doctors are, lest they ask who pays.
Jeremy Corbyn’s confidence on TV grows with every appearance, low paid public sector workers who felt let down by Labour will be thrilled by his support. But politicians serious about winning power and enacting its ideals must do the maths.
There’s no point in thrilling one voter if you offend two more. Both Jeremys are walking a tightrope.
Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian