Trade unions, the professions and rising inequality | Letters

Letters: Politicians have never been prepared to face down the medical profession since Nye Bevan discovered he had to ‘stuff their mouths with gold’

What a thoroughly reactionary article by Simon Jenkins (From militant doctors to angry lawyers, professionals are the new union barons,19 November), supporting government attacks on junior doctors and legal aid lawyers. He peddles the nonsense that the cost of legal aid is 20 times Europe’s average, ignoring the many comparable reports that have found costs to be average. His quaint middle-class idea that representation can simply be resolved by us seeking mediation ignores the role of some legal aid lawyers in supporting campaigns that exposed terrible police practices in cases such as Hillsborough or Stephen Lawrence.

His idea that everyone should be denied both a solicitor and a barrister would lead directly to masses of miscarriages of justices, where the police and prosecution would have representation denied to everyone else. It would also lead to a lack of accountability. The last time I was at court was at an inquest for a family of a man who had died in a G4S prison. The prison had skilfully managed to tell the wrong family their son had died. This did not stop them having four representatives at the inquest – but it also did not stop the jury criticising their practices. Decent representation may not be important for the likes of Simon Jenkins, but the majority of society cannot afford to be without it.
Matt Foot
Co-founder, Justice Alliance

• Simon Jenkins hits the nail on the head again. As a senior civil servant at the end of the 70s, I become the lead negotiator with the BMA on the pay and conditions of hospital doctors. My mother-in-law’s reaction was to wag her finger and tell me I must “look after them because they look after me”. It soon became clear that the BMA were, and remain, a formidable negotiating force, and much of this force comes from the support they have from the public. This, in turn, means that politicians have never been prepared to face down the medical profession and its restrictive practices at least since Nye Bevan discovered he had to “stuff their mouths with gold” to get them to cooperate with the new NHS in 1948.

One of the issues we tackled or, more accurately, failed to tackle, in the late 70s was changes in junior doctors’ contracts. The consultants argued that patient safety made it necessary to have a long tail of junior doctors at work or on call 24 hours a day. I compared this with the cover available in private hospitals, where many consultants more than doubled their salaries. There, no junior medical cover existed, consultants popped in to perform operations or prescribe treatment and popped out again, there was no access to patient records and no intensive care facilities if things went wrong. This is still, essentially, the position today. Despite these glaring differences we didn’t manage to get medical cover in NHS hospitals on to a more cost-effective footing, largely because ministers caved in. The current dispute with junior doctors is rather different, but the power of the BMA remains.
Alan Healey
Bishops Castle, Shropshire

• On page 37, Simon Jenkins informs us that the curbing of trade union power has made the British economy “more flexible and more efficient”. On page 28, an Institute for Fiscal Studies report points up some of the gross inequalities in British society, with the top 1% of households having net wealth of more than £2.4m and the poorest 1% with negative net wealth of more than £16,000.

Perhaps Jenkins’ next article could investigate the links between declining trade union power and growing social inequality, since impeccably mainstream organisations such as the World Bank seem convinced that such links exist. He may also care to offer us his definitions of flexibility and efficiency, too.
Tony Dennis
Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire

• As one person’s restrictive practice is another’s livelihood, the dismantling of trade union restrictive practices over the last 35 years can scarcely be seen as an unalloyed “good thing”, pace Simon Jenkins. Indeed, a major effect of the reduction of trade union power has been the very sharp reduction in the share of national income going to wages and the consequential growth of inequality in this country, with its zero-hours contracts, state subsidies to employers and landlords, and exploitation of cheap migrant labour.

As for the professions, the problem is not so much with restrictive practices as with restricted access, as government increasingly seeks to shift power away from the professions and to monetise all relationships. It is this question of power in the market that Simon, surprisingly, fails to recognise. Unfettered markets are the problem, not the solution. The professions represent independent sources of power in our society, which is one reason that they are under such swingeing attack from the neoliberals with their dogmatic assertion of the power of the “market” over all else. Cui Bono, Simon?
Roy Boffy

• Simon Jenkins condescendingly asserts that British universities are “wasting half the student year while teachers ‘do research’ or take holidays”. Does he believe that the publishable research required from academics happens in a time-free dimension? His jibe shows no appreciation of the vast amount of work behind the studies that fortify so many of his articles or culminate in the technologies and medical treatments from which so many of us benefit.
Clive Coen
Professor of neuroscience, King’s College London

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