After the party

In 2004 the Fire Brigades Union disaffiliated from the Labour Party. FBU general secretary Matt Wrack explains what it has meant for the union politically

September 20, 2008
4 min read

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


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry


2