frontline 9

Burning Bridges With New Labour

Richie Venton, the SSP industrial organiser looks at the political impact of the firefighters dispute.

The most important industrial battle since the miners strike has had a profound effect on working class loyalties to New Labour. The showdown between Blair's government and the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) marks a watershed in relations between classes and parties for years to come. Whether firefighters and control staff win or lose, the outcome of this battle will have a decisive impact on the short-term future of all workers' struggles.

So the SSP will continue to throw itself into the thick of battle on the side of the FBU. But a party without a strategy, based on an understanding of how this strike fits into the bigger jigsaw, is like a navigator without a compass or sense of direction. Successive governments have sought to suppress the expecta-tions and demands of working people, in their wealth transfusion from worker to capitalist. New Labour's transformation into an openly capitalist party has meant it's seamless continuation of the Tories' war on the public sector, with record levels of privatisation under Blair. Last summer they published plans to privatise the Highlands and Islands fire service. This ran alongside the brewing conflict over the FBU's claim for a professional wage.


New Labour were skewered on the horns of a dilemma. To resist and confront such a popular workforce would risk widespread loss of support. But to concede would open the floodgates, encouraging millions of even lower paid public sector workers to demand a living wage.

From the perspective of capitalist New Labour, a victory for the FBU would reinforce the recovering strength of the unions. Last year saw the highest strike figures since 1996, and a raft of New Left' leaders elected in AMICUS, PCS, and other unions.

With the global economy suffering its slowest growth for 20 years and Scotland officially in recession, the prospect of galloping redundancies and lost tax receipts reinforced New Labour's crusade to curb pay and cut back the 'social wage', including pensions.

They plumped for confronta tion with the FBU in the hope their belligerence would scare off the FBU leadership and cow a workforce whose vast majori ty have never experienced a national strike. They cynically calculated that with no Westminster elections for three years, and a feeble Tory opposi tion in England, better to ride out any loss of working class support, reassure big business, caress the prejudices of middle England, and crush the growth of working class militancy. As Blair strutted the world stage he had another factor in mind, to whip up pre-war unease about terrorism and smear the FBU as unpatriotic, acting the hard man at home and abroad.


But what are the consequences of this, the most important strike since the miners lost in 1985? The government's repeated interventions, scuppering employers' offers of 16% in July and November have politicised the FBU strikers to a degree not witnessed in an industrial dispute for 20 years. The miners' strike laid bare the role of the state, the fire-fighters' conflict has exposed the role of New Labour. John Prescott is a particular object of fire-fighters' loathing, but many understand he is merely the messenger boy for the entire Cabinet, cast in that role because of his alleged union background.

Most FBU members have had the scales removed from their eyes regarding New Labour. Thousands have ended their individual payments to Labour's political fund. Branches throughout Britain have passed resolutions demanding FBU disaffiliation from New Labour, a crushing vindication of the stance taken by the SSP through our Make the Break campaign.

FBU pickets are out on the streets with leaflets naming and shaming New Labour MSPs who voted for abolition of Section 19 of the 1947 Fire Service Act, which stipulates public consultation prior to station closures. They are threatening to stand candidates in the May elections, and are in discussions with the SSP to avoid damaging our electoral prospects (itself a tribute to the respect won by the SSP).

Several FBU branch secretaries say their entire watch or station are voting SSP. A few stations have requested forms to switch their political fund from Labour to the SSP. Many fire-fighters have understood the need to link their immediate industrial demands with the bigger struggle for the type of society required to match the needs of workers and communities, by joining the SSP.

Others have not yet drawn this full conclusion, but what is absolutely certain is that Labour faces mass desertion amongst fire-fighters and their families in the May elections.


Every movement has its turning points. The fire dispute has had several. One was Labour MSP Richard Simpson's infamous smear that FBU members are 'bastards' and 'fascists'. He was indiscreetly blurting out what many New Labour politicians really think. But more decisive, and more widespread in its repercussions across the entire trade union movement, was Prescott's declaration of intent to revive a law scrapped by Macmillan's Tory government in 1959. He would then have the power to impose pay and conditions on the FBU and de facto, ban their right to strike, using the cover of war abroad to declare war at home.

Paul Kenny, the left candidate in the current election for GMB general secretary, warned that Prescott's strike breaking declaration "threatens civil war in the labour movement". The crunch question is what these self same union leaders, and left critics of New Labour still within the Labour party, are prepared to do about Blair's class war.


The FBU's courageous fight has won massive solidarity amongst fellow trade unionists, reflected in collections, donations, and demonstrations. The STUC has backed FBU demos and called for collections. But what is sadly lacking so far from most left leaders is any strategy for victory for the FBU and the entire trade union movement, whose very right to function, including the right to strike, is being assaulted.

The SSP greatly welcomes the election of left union leaders, and we have been instrumental in securing several of them. These left leaders are a big boost to the fighting morale of trade unionists who have suffered a generation of set-backs. But we have also refused to suspend our critical faculties towards any left leaders, tracing the political shortcomings of many in their failure to see the need to build a viable socialist alternative to New Labour.

Instead they cling to a muddle headed wishfulness that they can transform New Labour back into Old Labour, or Real Labour, in the words of FBU leader Andy Gilchrist. This is not a question of the sincerity or otherwise of individual union lefts, even though sincerity should be in the bone marrow of any real socialist. Rather it is a question of perspective, strategy and the ability to identify what action best meets the needs of our class at a given point in history.


Workers always need to fight with both arms - industrial and political. At the height of the FBU's November strikes we raised the idea of a union day of action, not as a ritualistic incantation, but as a necessity given the scale of the conflict, the centrality of the FBU's struggle for other workers, and the danger of the government isolating the firefighters. That demand has taken on even more urgent significance, in the wake of Prescott's decla ration of dictatorial powers.

As Andy Gilchrist correctly told the FBU/STUC demo in Glasgow, this is a turning point, an attack on the entire public sector, a time when the FBU needs solidarity from other unions. However Andy and Bill Speirs of the STUC failed to spell out the form of solidarity required. The SSP's agitation in the unions for a Scottish day of action uniting all workers, fits the need of the moment. In its best form this would be a one-day strike, organised by the STUC and constituent unions, in defiance of New Labour's anti-union laws, lifting the morale of workers immeasurably, challenging the government head on.

Even a half-day equivalent, or simultaneous, nationwide, weekday city centre rallies, would be a powerful step in preventing the government from isolating and defeating the FBU. At the time of writing, we are launching a systematic campaign inside the unions for this action, as always trying to match words with deeds.


The hesitation of most 'new left' union leaders from calling for concrete solidarity is rooted in their political viewpoints. To their credit, Mark Serwotka (PCS general secretary) and Bob Crow (RMT general secretary) have gone further than other left leaders. Speaking at a Glasgow SSP public rally last September, Mark declared he would join the SSP if he lived in Scotland. Bob in January 2003 announced he would address SSP pre-election rallies and said "New Labour should stop expecting unions to trot out support for them in elections after kicking them in the teeth the rest of the year."

Other members of the media-dubbed 'awkward squad', such as Mick Rix (ASLEF) and Billy Hayes (CWU), advocate fighting within New Labour to reclaim it. Their admirable opposition to war on Iraq does not always extend to an equally steadfast position on the class war at home, and has not driven them to the only logical conclusion, that trying to transform a capitalist party into a socialist one is a cruel waste of trade unionists' time.

Even if they replace warmonger Blair as New Labour leader, who do they have in mind as his replacement? Gordon Brown, perhaps? Brown has been suspiciously quiet during the FBU dispute, and even had the gall to visit pickets in his Fife constituency. He is doubt-less jockeying for his own future, letting Blair take the flak as he struts the world's stage warmongering and denouncing the firefighters. But the same Prudence Brown insisted at a November Cabinet meeting that no money was available for the FBU, declaring, "the envelope is sealed".

Left union leaders who dream of a return to Old Labour suffer stunted ambitions and a dose of amnesia. Old Labour, deployed troops to break the 1977/8 firefighters' strike and the Glasgow cleansing workers' strike before it. Old Labour, provoked strikes by the lowest paid in the dirtiest jobs in the 1978/9 Winter of Discontent, millions of workers abstained in the 1979 election, ushering in Thatcher's Dark Ages.


Left union leaders and groups like the Campaign for Socialism (CFS) in the Scottish Labour Party who dream of dragging thousands of workers into New Labour to transform it are suffering fantasies. Vince Mills of the CFS recently wrote: "the socialist left need to simultaneously win Labour Party members to socialism and socialists to the Labour Party."

Certainly the wars on Iraq and on the FBU are combining to stir up discontent in Labour's ranks. Some principled socialists in Scottish Labour have defected to the SSP. Others have just resigned in disgust. Every defection and resignation, every mini-rebellion in Holyrood or Westminster is to be welcomed as a body blow to capitalist New Labour, a weakening of their war machine at home and abroad.

It has to be added that many of these internal Labour critics will limit their opposition to war until the United Nations sanction it, they lack the socialist principles to oppose all imperialist war for oil, no matter who launches it. But to imagine workers are going to join New Labour in the midst or aftermath of the FBU dispute, is a cruel deceit. The opposite is happening.

It is no accident that advocates of this 'reclaim from within' strategy, including Andy Gilchrist, have just cancelled the full FBU 2003 annual conference. They faced a position where over 60 per cent of conference resolutions from brigades were on the political fund, calling for disaffiliation from New Labour. If the FBU were to break its link with Labour, this would have a massive domino effect on other unions. Already the RMT are poised to discuss disaffiliation, and Scottish GPMU has stopped all payments to New Labour "until they concede a just settlement to the FBU".

In England the ineffectual, reactionary Tories, are the official opposition, which has encouraged Blair to launch war on the FBU. In Scotland, New Labour face opposition from the left, increasingly from the SSP, as well as the nominally 'left' SNP. And it is their great misfortune to face a Scottish general election, with the fire-fighters' dispute engulfing them. For New Labour, Scotland truly is the weakest link.


Prescott's declaration has put Scottish Labour on the rack. It could have far reaching consequences on the national question, including in the unions. The Scottish parliament has devolved powers over the fire service, although pay is negotiated at a British level. Should Prescott, Blair and Co. proceed with these dictatorial measures, they will either do so before the Scottish parliament dissolves and force a vote, or impose Westminster's dictat on Scotland whilst the Scottish parliament is in recess.

Either option will fuel demands for greater powers for the Scottish parliament, including calls for outright independence. The FBU in Scotland will increasingly turn to Scottish legislation for protection, they are already petitioning the Scottish Parliament for a new Fire Service Act, and could move towards support for socialist independence, though not in one fell swoop.

Immediately Prescott made his announcement, the SSP demanded resistance on two fronts, an industrial day of action in support of the FBU and a refusal by the Scottish parliament to implement Prescott's dictatorship. With the May elections looming, in all likelihood a majority of MSPs would reject Prescott's moves, most as sheer self pre-serving opportunists.

This does not mean Scottish New Labour is on the eve of socialist renewal. On the contrary, recent rebellions by New Labour MSPs, on Section 19, the SSP's Free School Meals Bill, or Tommy Sheridan's amendment to oppose a UN sanctioned war on Iraq, have been remarkably feeble.

The Campaign for Socialism group claims 8 or 9 MSPs, yet, consistently far less join the rebels. Some have told FBU pickets they support them but cannot make it public. When principled socialist MSP John McAllion stood for the party leadership he could not get a seconder amongst his CFS comrades. Recently the CFS billed their 'After New Labour' rally as "a major event signalling a new beginning for Labour's Scottish Left." Despite several prominent speakers it mustered a mass army of fifty.

If anything the Scottish Labour left is even more marginalised than their English counterparts. This is partly because the powerful alternative of the united, vibrant SSP has already attracted many of the best socialist activists from New Labour, leaving very little space for any other left formation in Scottish politics. New Labour's assault on the FBU a turning point in relations between the working class and New Labour, between Scotland and Westminster, but also between the organised working class and the SSP.