UK: Dispute as much political as industrial

October 24, 2002

The spirit of the narks

The government’s denunciation of the firefighters has echoes of a murky industrial past, writes Seumas Milne

The Guardian, Thursday October 24, 2002

Tony Blair’s decision to denounce the leaders of the firefighters’ and rail unions yesterday as “Scargillite” is an unmistakable sign that the confrontation with Britain’s firefighters is now as much a political as an industrial one – at least on the government’s side.

Gone is the studiedly relaxed attitude towards the radicalisation of the trade unions that the prime minister was so keen to display during the summer, in the run-up to the TUC [Trade Union Congress] and Labour conferences.

Now he is in full jaw-jutting Thatcher-revivalist mode, ready to do battle with what he appears to believe are the last camp-followers of the enemy within incarnate.

It is all so different from the understanding shown towards the fuel tax blockades by self-employed truckers and farmers two years ago.

While mild mannered transport minister Nick Raynsford brands the Fire Brigades Union “criminally irresponsible” and one-time militant strike leader John Prescott blusters that industrial action is “simply indefensible”, Blair and Gordon Brown are uncharacteristically at one in their resistance to a genuine compromise with the firefighters.

Instead, Blair has declared that the dispute is being politically driven by the “far left”. His message is plain: this is an illegitimate dispute and will be treated as such.

There are powerful echoes of the recent past in such prime ministerial charges. What they have often led to in practice has been spelled out in the latest revelations of the security services’ infiltration and subversion of the labour movement.

The forthcoming BBC series True Spies can be criticised for a tendency to take the self-serving claims of retired police special branch officers at face value and a certain lack of scepticism about the absurd concept of “subversion”.

But its first-hand accounts of what all governments have been prepared to do to weaken the left and suborn independent trade unionism in the name of democracy could not be more timely.

As the cold war has receded into history, veterans of the secret state have been prepared to yield up a little bit more of their seedy, anti-democratic world: the large-scale blacklisting of union activists, the use of agents and informers at all levels of the labour movement, the destabilisation and undermining of strikes, and the betrayal of their members by trade union leaders who secretly worked for the security services.

The former special branch officers who have been boasting of their exploits to the BBC say that 23 senior trade unionists were “talking” to them in the 1970s – and that’s not counting those working as narks for MI5.

Some will have done so for ideological reasons, others may have cooperated unwittingly or been blackmailed or bought. That Joe Gormley – the bluff “moderate” National Union of Mineworkers president during its successful walkouts of 1972 and 1974, later ennobled by the Tories – turns out to have been a special branch informer, who tipped off his handlers about strike plans, is mostly a surprise because he might have rather been expected to pick up the phone and talk to government ministers direct.

“He was a patriot and he was very worried about the growth of militancy in his union”, the ex-branch man explains. The claim that the well-liked leftwing train drivers’ leader, Ray Buckton, was a special branch contact will come as more of a shock, even if some in his old union had privately harboured suspicions about his loyalties.

But no one by now should be surprised to hear of the blanket targeting of the miners’ union by the security services during and after the strike of 1984-85, of agents at the heart of the NUM or that Arthur Scargill, Tony Blair’s spectre of industrial insurrection, has been the single most lavishly targeted object of the secret state’s attentions in Britain since the second world war.

For all the growing body of evidence of state-sponsored penetration and subversion of the labour movement, it is easy to exaggerate its importance. The spooks and narks were only part of a wider effort to weaken the influence of the left in the trade unions over the past half century. An exotic array of state and business-sponsored outfits and blacklisting organizations were mobilised to work alongside them, usually under an anti-communist banner.

In most disputes, they will have only had a marginal impact on the course of events – other industrial and political pressures were much more significant. But the emerging gruesome record does have the advantage of highlighting the ever-present dangers to effective trade unionism of the corporate and state embrace.

Although some of it was connected with the cold war, that was mostly an alibi for a more prosaic domestic concern – to weaken the power of organised labour in the economy.

And while unions generally have far less industrial clout than they did when firefighters last staged a national strike 25 years ago and the security services are supposed to have wound down their counter-subversion operations, special branch and MI5 will doubtless be using the leftwing affiliations of FBU and Aslef officials during this dispute as an excuse to try and tip the industrial balance.

As one civil servant told an FBU negotiator who complained about phone tapping during the firefighters’ strike of 1977: “We’ve got to know what you’re going to do”. Whatever its subterranean support, the government has only itself to blame for a dispute that has been such a long time in the offing. By failing seriously to address the public sector pay crisis in its first term, while refusing to act over the continuing salary explosion for high earners, it guaranteed that crisis would come to a head in the second term.

The formula linking firefighters’ wages to the best paid manual workers that settled the 1977 strike had long since stopped delivering the goods. By blocking the kind of offer that might have led to a deal in the summer and delaying the setting up of its pay review until September, the government made sure the dispute would finally boil over. Now it has had to fall back on moral blackmail, misrepresentation of the FBU’s real negotiating position and rubbishing of the union’s leadership.

It would be reassuring to imagine these were government blunders. The evidence is not encouraging. There were New Labour mutterings about taking on the firefighters (and no-strike deals for emergency service workers) even before the 1997 general election.

By blocking London Underground from going to mediation in the recent tube workers’ dispute, the government effectively tried to prevent the settlement that Ken Livingstone eventually signed to bring the strikes to an end.

When it comes to the firefighters, there are plenty of ways out for the government if it wanted to take them. If it doesn’t do so, it will be clear that Blair and Brown are out to crack the union as a way of stemming the current tide of union confidence and militancy.

Downing Street is known to believe that if the firefighters are seen to be successful, the prospects for the left in the crucial TGWU and GMB elections will be strengthened. Blair has described the string of elections of radical union leaders, such as the FBU’s Andy Gilchrist, as the “last spasm” of the hard left.

That is wishful thinking. But he shows every sign of being determined to stop the contagion spreading by isolating the FBU. The interest of the entire trade union movement is now to make sure that does not happen.



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