Yesterday’s industrial action by the BMA showed how difficult it is going to be for the doctors’ union to develop a popular narrative to explain it.
As the day developed it was clear that the vast bulk of media opinion was not just opposed to their going on strike but became more furious about the nature of the issue for which they were striking when they understood it better.
This highlights contradiction number 1 for the BMA. When you take industrial action it’s really important to clearly explain to the public what the action is about. If you don’t do this the public think you are doing it for nothing.
In London today many bus drivers will be on strike and they are because they want a bonus during the Olympics. This action will make today a difficult day for many Londoners. But the ‘vox pops’ on the London news last night showed that some Londoners. when they heard what it was about, said things like “” I don’t want to have a difficult journey into work tomorrow – but I can understand why the drivers want a bonus during the Olympics”
As more of the public understood what the strike was about, a few more were sympathetic.
Compare and contrast for the BMA. The more the public understand the issue the doctors are striking for, the more they feel angry at the action. Of course most people start off understanding that everyone wants a better pension, but then when they compare their own pension, or their parents’ or their grandparents’, to that of the average doctor they are more angry than before they knew what the strike is about.
The problem for the doctors’ message is that the gap between what they will get from their pension and what nearly everybody else gets is enormous – and in 2012 economic times are hard.
So the first contradiction is that the better the public know what the doctors are striking about the worse they will think of the action.
The second contradiction happened as the day’s strike progressed. In any industrial action there is a battle between the union taking the action and the media about how effective the action is. Today the bus drivers’ union will say that the network is shut down and there are no buses running while the media will report the few plucky drivers who got to work and drove their buses.
The union will want to say industrial action was universally effective – opponents will say it had little impact.
Transfer this to doctors’ action yesterday. The BMA want to be able to say that their members all took action and that it had a big impact on the NHS. It was successful. But as soon as they open their mouths to say that they were successful in stopping much of the NHS working for a day, they can see the headlines about people having to wait in pain, distress and anxiety.
So what they want to say is that they had a really successful day’s inaction which had a massive impact on the NHS, but in fact had no impact on patients.
This is a really difficult trick to pull off.
If the point of your action is to stop treating hundreds of thousands of people and you are successful then by definition that success means that hundreds of thousands of people are not treated.
So it’s really difficult for the BMA to say “We had a good solid response from our members – not a single non-urgent case was treated”, because even as they say the last clause of that sentence they know that it’s a disaster.
So with this industrial action you have the paradox of the union having to say.” We had a good solid day’s industrial action and no one was affected” and the Government saying “Not many doctors took action but they had a devastating impact upon patients.”
The first problem for the BMA – and it’s a big problem – is that as more and more people hit harder times, the more they understand what the strikes are about, the more bewildered they will become.
The second problem – and it’s a big problem – is that the more they claim the industrial action is successful the angrier the public will become.
Paradoxically the BMA will be in a much better position if no-one understands why they are striking and if their strikes have no impact at all.
This is not a good position for a trades union to be in.