The Blog

The Junior Doctors' Contract Issue Is Political

If the government continues to disregard society's needs and people's welfare, junior doctors should bring it down.

Over the past few days, one of the most "probing" questions media outlets have consistently asked junior doctors is: "Are you trying to bring down the government?" following a story the BBC picked up from a "government official". The usual response from junior doctors who are being interviewed has ranged from distancing themselves from this "accusation", to condemning it as a "ridiculous" suggestion.

Many doctors, and indeed members of the public, believe the fight for fair contracts, reasonable working conditions and a functioning health services is an "apolitical" fight. The bottom line, however, is that policies that are determined by politicians are inherently political. Thinking of this issue as an apolitical one ignores the hugely important notion that the way our public services are organised, financed and managed is basically what politics is all about.

The vast majority of political parties have a lot more similarities than differences. They mostly believe in the same type and organisation of economy (the disagreements are mostly about the rate of tax rather than the premise or organisation of taxes). They believe in the same model of democracy and accountability, with extremely minor variations in opinion there. Only 8 out of 53 Prime Ministers went to non-fee-paying schools. All were white, and nearly all were posh men. Politicians at the highest levels really are not a diverse bunch.

Why do we vote then?! Voting is the main way in which the general public is offered the opportunity to engage in demonstrating a choice in political matters (although it is a relief to see protests, strikes and other forms of political engagement regaining credibility as valuable ways of democratic engagement). The premise of having a choice implies that there are differences to choose from. It is in these differences that we are faced with a choice over how our public services are organised, financed and managed.

Turning every single school in the country into an academy is a political choice. Scrapping Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) and replacing them with Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) is a political choice. Allowing competition over health services, and opening that competition up to non-public providers, such as Virgin, BUPA and Circle Health, are political choices. Parties to the "right" of the political spectrum, such as the Conservatives and UKIP, are much more likely to make those choices than parties to the "left" of the political spectrum, such as the Green Party and SNP. I neglect Labour here because they seem to currently be on a journey to the left with their leadership, but with a largely right-wing set of MPs.

These political choices are all to do with one thing: the political parties that believe in the above choices believe that the "State" should play as small a role in the organisation, financing and delivery of public services as possible. That is not a conspiracy theory, it is political theory. This is what neo-liberalism means, the dominant political theory for the last 30 years, and the current government believes in quite an extreme version of it. The government has the right (and, I would argue, the responsibility) to:

  • Control rent prices to make homes more affordable for people who are being made homeless every day;
  • Subsidise or provide basic food to stop children going to sleep hungry;
  • Ensure that people have the opportunity to work in dignity.

They have a right, and a responsibility, to listen to the will of tens of thousands of doctors up and down the country telling them "enough is enough". Protecting patients and doctors is a choice that the government can make, or not. It is, at the end of the day, a political choice.

So please, please, please, recognise this as a political struggle. Framing the issue of Junior Doctor contracts as "apolitical" ignores the vast context that it exists in, a context the issue could not exist without. Standing up for your, and your patients', rights is not apolitical; it is the most political thing you can do. Signing a petition is political. Protesting is political. Marching is political. Striking is political. Disagreeing with government is political. So if a BBC journalist asks a Junior Doctor: "Are you trying to bring down the government?" maybe the answer should instead be: "If they continue to discriminate against the vulnerable, put patient safety at risk and ignore the will of the people, then yes, I am trying to bring down the government."