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And so it comes to this (again)

When big issues are involved, whether you’re talking national/political things like an ‘In/Out’ EU Referendum or a NHS junior doctor’s dispute, it’s jolly hard for we non-participants on the side-lines to understand properly the protagonists’ respective arguments, still less the detailed facts of what they’re arguing about. Especially when relations have broken down sufficiently that neither side trusts the other and both are ‘spinning’ every new fact, development or point of contention for all they’re worth.

HuntWith the current junior doctor’s dispute, this is undoubtedly so – and from my perspective nobody comes out of it particularly well.

For me, Jeremy Hunt has an image problem.

In both his last job (Culture Media & Sport) and now as Health Secretary, he has tended to come across on screen, whether in media interviews or in the House of Commons, rather like the head boy in a school debating team … a naïve but earnest chairman of the Oxford Union … or indeed a startled fawn … who, having been programmed with a robotdetailed knowledge of the necessary background theoretical reading and brief, has had his soul and brain replaced by a robot’s workings capable of spewing out bland, rational-sounding verbiage by the endless yard.

I marginally prefer that explanation to the alternative, i.e. that he has actually been sent to a secret concentration camp in Scotland, never to be seen again, and then replaced by a special-designed MI6 automaton ‘robot minister’ designed to look exactly like him.

At the same time, I am intrigued by the junior doctors, Firstly, those who appear on the demonstration lines, carefully staged behind the television reporters, look uniformly young. And intelligent, far more so than me.

studentsA bit like the students of my day in the 1960s and 1970s who made up the renta-crowds protesting about whatever was the issue of the moment.

Secondly, whether interviewed on the pavement or on studio current affairs shows, or contributing to radio phone-in programmes, they immediately launch into an inordinately detailed account of how nobody understands what they do, how they’re permanently exhausted from already working 100 hours per week, and how their dispute is exclusively about patients’ safety.

Some things in life come around again and again in each successive generation.

Eons ago, I worked in the television world which in those days was a vast and unique industry – not unlike the NHS in fact – in which no sane person would ever choose to work unless they either regarded it as a vocation and/or were seduced by the unspoken driver that it was perceived generally by those outside it as being rather cutting edge and glamorous.

Back then television Industrial relations were a minefield. Well, all industrial relations were a minefield.

In about 1980 there was a national ITV pay dispute. The workers wanted an annual pay increase of 6% and the employers offered 2%. After a prolonged and bitter negotiation process they went to war (i.e. a strike). After a few weeks – with the ITV companies losing millions of pounds of advertising sales per day – the employers sued for peace and the workers walked away with an average 27% increase. That was about par for the course in those mad days.

On another occasion, there was a videotape editors dispute. Their inflated wages were based upon the fact that they took ages to learn their very complicated trade and their scheduling structure meant that they were already on overtime almost before their first tea break of the day. Not only that but, such was the roster carefully negotiated by their union, many of the chaps in the company I worked in also ran second careers or businesses out in the sticks where they lived – whilst only turning up for the few days a fortnight that they worked for us.

The company decided to introduce a revised working schedule which meant that ‘the lads’ would actually have to work on a week-by-week basis. They point blank refused – and eventually went on strike, supported by their union, with it being widely suspected that their main gripe was that those running ‘businesses on the side’ would probably have to give them up if weekly rosters were implemented.

tapeIn short, they were happy and used to the way their work was already organised … and didn’t want to change it.

[In fact there was another aspect to the problem. The days of ‘real’ film editing work, which involved hours of detailed work (and physically cutting up and splicing together the film) had gone. Instead, film had been replaced by tape. Plus, when the machinery went wrong, instead of prolonged and complicated repair work to resolve the issue, with video machines you could simply pull out the ‘broken’ component and replace it with a new one – and bingo! – it all worked perfectly again.]

The industrial dispute, intense and bitter because it involved the management operating the video machines after the editors walked out, was a win for neither side.

Firstly, though the editors had always maintained that their work was highly technical and difficult, the management soon proved this was not the case. Even a junior personnel officer, given an hour’s tuition, could be taught to ‘fire’ the commercials into the ITV advertising breaks with passable competence. In other words, on the face of it, the editors had been ‘pulling the wool over the eyes of their employer’ and were being heavily over-paid for what they did.

By the same token, by about a fortnight into the dispute – and I can testify to this from personal experience (being one of the management ‘blacklegs’ now doing the editor’s work) – the general consensus of the management involved, including me, was that the everyday job of an editor was so relentlessly repetitive and boring they’d have to pay us two to three times our normal pay to do it for real – day in, day out!

As I said, a no-win for both sides.

My point is, in the context of the current junior doctor’s dispute, that the one aspect of the the BMA/junior doctors’ case that rankles with me slightly is the suspicion (or suggestion?) that the doctors are perfectly happy with their existing contracts and working schedules … and simply don’t want to change them. Or have them changed for them by being imposed.

And that’s irrespective of the reasons that Jeremy Hunt and the NHS management might want to do it, whatever they might be.

It’s a bit like the Post Office. There was a time, of course, when the world corresponded (and sent parcels) solely by using paper, envelopes and stamps and delivery was executed by the good old postie on the ground, tramping the streets and being savaged by your pet dog Fido as they strolled up your garden path.

And we all sent postcards as well as letters.

But that was then. The world moves on. Now people use emails, the internet and social media to communicate with each other … and send ‘parcels’ of information via attachments, or even get Amazon to deliver their purchases within 24 hours.

No doubt some Post Offices workers would still like the world to operating as it did when they were young and coming into the postal industry. After all, we all get used to what we get used to.

And they worry when someone comes along with a new way of doing it, or perhaps asks the question “But why do you do it that way? Who says you have to? Why not do it this way?”. It’s only natural to be concerned. But it doesn’t mean that things cannot change, or should not change.

Both sides in this junior doctors’ dispute may be right for all I know – but probably more likely, both sides are wrong to one degree or another. However, that possible ‘Luddism’ angle to their attitude is my slight reservation about the junior doctors’ stance.

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About Lavinia Thompson

A university lecturer for many years, both at home and abroad, Lavinia Thompson retired in 2008 and has since taken up freelance journalism. She is currently studying for a distant learning degree in geo-political science and lives in Norwich with her partner. More Posts