(Originally published in Independent Voices, 18.05.16)
From the moment Jeremy Hunt lobbed his seven-day grenade into doctors’ laps last summer, he knew precisely the media narrative he intended to craft. This was to be a blockbuster classic of libertarian right versus militant left, government and trade union locked in combat. Grassroots junior doctors like me, on the other hand, were little more than the extras – hapless saps whipped into righteous fury by BMA lies we were too naïve to see for what they were.
The fact is, Hunt’s dichotomous narrative of right-wing government versus left-wing trade union has been turned on its head by an industrial dispute in which ordinary grassroots doctors themselves seized the initiative, harnessing social media to campaign in ways that were sometimes far more effective than anything their union managed. This has been an online war. And in twenty-first century trade union politics, the smartphone is mightier than the sword.
Right from the outset, after Hunt first told doctors to “get real” about providing a seven-day service at weekends, NHS staff turned to Twitter to condemn him with the simplest of hashtags, #iminworkjeremy. All weekend long, Hunt’s denigrating comments about our “Monday to Friday culture” were elegantly exposed as the spin they were by a deluge of selfies showing doctors hard at work on the NHS frontline. Later, when Sunday Times columnist Dominic Lawson blamed women for causing the crisis (we have the temerity to work part-time, you see), he was mercilessly lampooned online with the satirical hashtag, #likealadydoc. An online Facebook ‘junior doctors forum’ quickly became the heart of the campaign, in which all 54,000 of us had a voice.
The prominence of social media throughout the dispute was roundly condemned from various quarters, including Sir David Dalton, the government’s lead at the negotiating table, who described to the Times the “huge impediment” of negotiations being conducted “in a goldfish bowl of people giving real-time commentary”.
Some of that criticism is justified. There is never a place for online trolling of individuals whose views diverge from the majority, least of all by doctors. But the ire provoked by our use of social media really, I suspect, boils down to the threat these online platforms pose to a government desperate to control the narrative.
Hunt craved linear soundbites, framed by a strike from three decades ago. “The last thing we want is a ‘miners moment’ in our NHS,” he wrote, “but the BMA have made their unreasonable demands and extreme strike action a test of whether a powerful union can veto promises made by an elected Government.”
But ordinary junior doctors proved just how out of touch the government was to presume industrial disputes in an online age can be modeled on the miners’ strike. Independently of the BMA, using Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp and the rest, we mobilised, organised and strategised and planned – frequently running rings round the Department of Health press office. Crucially, not a jot of this activity was orchestrated by a union boss: it evolved from the grassroots up.
In short, we have just witnessed the first quintessentially modern industrial dispute, one in which public sector workers evolved en masse into keyboard revolutionaries. There are multiple lessons to learn here, but the government may wish to start by getting to grips with Whatsapp.