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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