British Firemen’s Union Leader: “We Do Need Real Labour”

by Andy Gilchrist

[Note by Labor Standard: We reprint below, for the information of our readers, a significant statement just published by the leader of today’s firefighters’ union in Britain.

[Andy Gilchrist is general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), which has waged a series of short strikes during the past several weeks, demanding a substantial rise in firefighters’ annual incomes, because for the past decade or so, their wages have essentially been frozen. The Blair government is refusing to concede to these demands, and has sent in the armed forces and the police to scab on the strikers. But the firefighters have the support of the union movement as a whole, and of a majority of the public, according to opinion polls.

[Gilchrist is one of a dozen or more radical, class-struggle-minded labor leaders elected by the ranks of the unions in Britain during the past year or two. (Note that 87 percent [!] of FBU members voted for strike action.) The left-wing union leaders oppose the Thatcherite policies being pursued by Tony Blair’s “New Labour” clique now in office. They especially oppose Blair’s support for Bush’s planned war against Iraq. As Gilchrist points out in the article below, Blair is willing to spend 1,000 million pounds on “an unjust, cowardly war,” but can’t find 80 million pounds to pay for a fair settlement in the firemen’s dispute.

[This article by Gilchrist, which appeared in the Guardian (London) on December 4, is of special interest in its discussion of the link between rank and file workers and the political party that is supposed to represent them. Gilchrist speaks of the “organic unity” between the party and the unions, and as he puts it, “The [Labour] party’s unique strength is in its links to the organized working class.”

[Blair’s desire is to break free of union control over the party. As long as the unions control the party, the union ranks have the potential to elect union leaders who will make sure their political party represents their interests. Right now the Blair clique, calling itself “New Labour,” is representing the interests of the capitalist class that owns the major means of production in Britain and, because of its ownership of capital, is driven by the greed for profit to exploit labor and wage horribly destructive (but profitable) imperial wars.

[Gilchrist recently spoke at a conference of Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) who are part of the Campaign for Socialism in the Labour Party, which seeks through the unions, and through the still existing union control of party policy, to make the Labour Party truly representative of the working class majority in modern society. That’s evidently what Gilchrist means when he advocates “Real Labour” instead of Blair’s “New Labour.]

The furor triggered by my comments about New Labour and Real Labour at the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs’ conference last weekend has been out of all proportion to their significance. Critics reacted as though my warnings represent a new development in Fire Brigades Union policy. They do not — and let me explain why.

My central point was that New Labour’s policies in government are alienating many traditional supporters. As a result, the task of those, like myself, who passionately believe in strengthening the link between the party and unions, is being made increasingly difficult. In almost every Labour-affiliated union the call is becoming louder to weaken the links and reduce financial support to the Labour establishment. This demand will become impossible to counter if the government continues with New Labour’s project of appeasing big business while distancing itself from the unions. The government’s handling of the firefighters’ dispute, during which it has intervened three times to prevent a negotiated settlement, is but the latest episode in this process.

So the challenge to all those who treasure Labour’s values is to rescue the party from the New Labour project. This certainly does not mean bringing down the Labour government, let alone using the firefighters as unwitting storm troopers in a revolutionary bid for power. It means, on the contrary, a patient political struggle to change the Labour party from within and persuade the leadership to abandon its attack on the public service ethos.

My call on Saturday was simply to work within the constitution of Labour to reclaim the party for socialist values and pro-working class policies: to work for greater equality and fairer rewards, for full employment and jobs paying decent wages, for progressive taxation to fund better public services, and for peace with justice underpinned by international law and the UN charter. If we fail in these objectives, the Labour party will be lost to its New Labour colonizers and the organic unity between party and unions will be destroyed.

Of course it suits John Prescott [one of Blair’s spokesmen] to offer avuncular advice about keeping out of politics. But individual members and affiliated unions still have the right to criticize the government and that was the right I was exercising at the weekend. It’s called democracy. And John Prescott, backed by the Tories and the entire establishment media, insists on criticizing the FBU, its tactics and strategy, despite the 87% ballot for action and the modesty of our ambitions. The proposed salary of £30,000 a year for the job our members do is a fair rate, backed up by detailed research and job evaluation exercises.

The armed forces have done a good job in difficult circumstances. But they are not doing the same job as a professional firefighter. And wouldn’t it be better if police officers were chasing thieves rather than investigating bin fires? The hidden costs of this dispute are enormous. It’s time for a negotiated settlement and only the government can deliver this.

When it comes to Iraq, the humanitarian prospects of a war are terrifying. But so will be the political fallout. Labour will be split, perhaps never to recover as a mass party. Gordon Brown’s spending programs may well have to be abandoned or taxes raised to pay for the war. On its past record, it seems likely that New Labour will choose cuts to public services rather than tax big business and the rich.

It is right for public sector trade unionists to speak out, along with Church of England leaders, against war. And a Labour government informed by socialist values would find the £80m to fund a fair settlement to the fire dispute rather than commit £1,000m to an unjust, cowardly war.

Undoubtedly some New Labour policy wonks would welcome a growing separation, followed by divorce, of Labour and the unions. If that were to happen it would be a bleak day for working people and the Labour party.

The party’s unique strength is in its links to the organized working class. Through its federal structure the party can, if it chooses, reflect the experiences and aspirations of millions of working people. It is Labour’s direct link to the factory floor, to the housing estate, to the experiences of millions working in the public sector.

No other party has this. And if Labour was to abandon it, the party would become just another rudderless organization totally controlled by the professional political class. It’s already well down this road. My call last Saturday was to change direction and for rank-and-file members to work for such a change before New Labour destroys Real Labour.