UK: Blair takes on the FBU

October 22, 2002

By picking a fight with the FBU, Blair has opened a dangerous front

By George Galloway

The Guardian, Tuesday October 22, 2002

When the New York September sky, streaked with blood, began to fall, the world watched in awe as the firefighters, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, disappeared into the dust, up the stairs, into the fire, many to the darkness of a smoky grave. A million words were spoken about the essential nobility of the firefighter, an almost socialist realist picture of strength and selflessness.

That was then. This is a now in which men and women who put their lives on the line for £21,000 a year are called “greedy militants” by journalists earning three to four times as much for reporting cats stuck up trees or inflaming popular prejudices. Where formerly militant cabinet ministers, who last year voted themselves a 40% pay increase and are planning to set fire to their fifth conflagration abroad in five years, can attack them for endangering “peoples’ lives and properties”.

The firefighters haven’t withdrawn their labour for 25 years. If they hadn’t waited so long before crying foul they wouldn’t have so far to catch up on, say, policemen or train drivers, both of whose jobs are clearly comparable, yet who are already earning 40% more than the fire service.

John Prescott should be warned. When lectured on firefighters’ value for money by well-upholstered New Labour mouthpieces, the public prefers the union. Harold Macmillan once said that no prime minister should get into a confrontation with the Brigade of Guards, the Roman Catholic church or the National Union of Mineworkers. Since the decline of the latter, I would substitute the men and women of the fire brigades. With a PR machine consisting of the shamefaced Mr Prescott – once part of the “tightly knit group of politically motivated men” who blockaded Britain in the 1966 seafarers’ strike – and the Clark Kent lookalike Nick Raynsford, the government seems bound to be overwhelmed by those who plunge into burning buildings for a living.

Siren voices have sought to lure the firefighters’ case on to the rocks of public disapproval. They highlight the apparently outlandish £30,000 claim, disregarding the fact that it was the union’s previous docility which saw them drop so far behind. Long-discarded 1970s-style arguments that low-paid women workers lose out from trade union militancy have been dusted down, as if a pay rise rise foregone by firefighters will miraculously turn up in the wage packets of dinner ladies. Such criticisms may help dent support for the union among the public generally. But Labour people, I predict, will remain solid with the strike and see the simple truth: that in periods of trade union militancy, weaker workers gain too, as all boats are lifted on the rising tide.

By picking a fight with the fire service, which is what was done when the employers were forced by Whitehall to retreat from their earlier intention of offering a substantial rise, our perpetually at-war prime minister, Tony Blair, has opened up a new and dangerous front, for the class war trenches are tinder-box dry and spoiling for a fight.

For 20 years, many in white collars have seen their living standards inexorably rise as pay, tax and public expenditure policies have been skewed towards them. The working class, virtually unrepresented in parliament since the the miners’ strike, has been increasingly left behind.

Every union election brings a victory for a more militant fightback – and the firefighters are just the first out of the trap. Rail and postal workers, the low-paid end of the civil service, local government staff and the recent defeat of Blair’s “favourite trades unionist” Sir Ken Jackson are harbingers of a storm blowing his way.

On pay, privatisation and public spending priorities, the Labour leadership is dangerously out of touch with its base. Members are voting with their feet. When given the call, Labour voters respond by staying at home, voting for monkeys or robo-cops, or turning left. Among the hundreds of thousands who came to London for the recent anti-war march were a high percentage of Labour’s rank and file. And in a fight between Prescott, Blair and the FBU, there won’t be many sliding down the pole to answer Prescott’s call to arms.

As over Iraq, Blair’s policy of zealous absolutism has painted him into a corner in which he is dangerously isolated. On both fronts there is a critical mass of opposition developing, even in the dark recesses of the House of Commons, where critical votes are having to be deliberately aborted to avoid exposing chasms of opposition and abstention. For Blair it will be never glad confident morning again.



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