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There had been a long-running debate in the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) about our affiliation with the Labour Party going back to the 1980s. But it all came to a head during the 2002/2003 disputes. Our members were taken aback by how suddenly the pressure was put on by the government and the harshness with which we were treated. One Labour politician even described us as fascists. We settled the disputes in 2003 and at the following year’s conference we disaffiliated from the party.
An overwhelming percentage of the FBU membership supported the decision. I suspect that in the beginning a lot of our members just wanted to give Labour a bit of a kick but they have continued to back disaffiliation in the following years. Since then we have been thinking through how we develop: what we do politically as a disaffiliated union.
There was a concern among our officials that we would be left isolated and politicians wouldn’t talk to us anymore. I don’t think that has happened. We have a very good relationship with a lot of MPs and have also rebuilt some of our relations with government. Ironically, it seems that since disaffiliating we have formalised a lot more of our parliamentary work.
Using the political fund
We continue to use our political fund to support individual Labour MPs, such as John McDonnell in his leadership bid. Our regional groups have supported Green and Respect candidates, although the FBU nationally has not supported any other parties’ candidates since Labour.
In Scotland being disaffiliated has opened more doors for us. We have backed a range of candidates, including the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). We have a good relationship with the Scottish government, possibly better than the one we have at Westminster. It strikes me how different the political debate in Scotland is to England. The first minister goes to the Scottish TUC and talks openly about council housing and opposing the war – stuff that a politician would never tell you here.
We also support plenty of single-issue campaigns. This year we have worked closely with the anti-fascist movement, funding the Love Music Hate Racism march and festival.
Some people think we should be moving further towards an approach where we pick out individual candidates and campaigns. I don’t agree. I feel strongly that there needs to be a wider approach – the left and the working class needs a political party but there isn’t one for them at this time.
No longer Labour
In theory, you would think that if the Labour government is on the ropes it would be an ideal opportunity for the trade unions to put some demands to them. I’ve not seen any evidence, although I hope this will happen.
Instead, it seems that among the affiliated unions there is currently a move to rally round the Labour Party as the election approaches. I’m pleased we don’t have that in the FBU, as I don’t think it washes with either members or people generally. There is no sign of a change in direction now and there is unlikely to be any change after an election either.
There is a huge amount of frustration with mainstream politics. There is consensus among the three main parties around a neoliberal agenda. For us as trade unions that is about the privatisation and restrictions on trade union rights that have alienated Labour’s core supporters.
I am no longer a Labour member. I am not convinced the party can be reclaimed in the way people want it to be at the moment. But we need to be political and the working class needs representation in parliament. How we achieve that is a drawn-out process. The trade unions that are clearly opposed to the mainstream agenda need to discuss and co-operate a lot more. The challenge for us is the need for a fundamental debate about the type of society we want.
For me as a socialist, I’d like a socialist society. I think there is a growing unease about some of the developments – ever-growing inequality and climate change, for example – and the fact is the policies around which Labour, Liberals and Tories address those issues – a market based approach – can’t do anything.
Matt Wrack was talking to Lena de Casparis
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The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
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Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
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A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
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Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun