Fire Brigades Union activist and National Officer Riccardo la Torre spoke to Sacha Ismail.
Yesterday we had “Victory in Europe” day, and a lot of nationalism. What are your thoughts on it?
Well, first off I’m angry that workers are dying because they’re at work and aren’t given proper protection, and yet the same “leaders” responsible want us waving Union Jacks.
There’s immediate reasons to be angry too, because the day itself created a lot of unsafe conditions. I’ve seen blokes out selling Union Jacks and pictures of the Queen – which makes the political agenda of it all pretty clear, but also is that essential work?
What’s depressing is not the out-and-out nationalists. It’s the success of this stuff in getting a grip with a wider layer of people. Of course, that strand of patriotism always exists. I never cease to be baffled by the amount of reasonable-minded people who love the Queen. They may be struggling to feed their family, working on the minimum wage, but they love the Queen. This feeds off and exacerbates that.
Then add in the fact that the government has been successful from the start of this crisis in harnessing the language of war-time, constantly comparing this to World War 2 and the Blitz. There’s many aspects to that: for instance now deciding to call firefighters and nurses heroes and normalising the numbers of us dying when it could easily be avoided. At its core, it’s about rallying us behind the government and Boris Johnson as our leader.
It’s classic right-wing tactics but now there’s a perfect storm of circumstances to help them do it. It may not work out that way later in the “war”, of course.
The fact they’ve stolen our Workers’ Day holiday by moving the bank holiday to their patriotic festival only adds to my frustration.
I suppose it’s important to remember that for large numbers of people, their thoughts are more complicated. They don’t necessarily see it as the flag of the ruling class, but the flag of their neighbour, their family, the people they go to work with. There are plenty of people who rally to the flag but still hate the Tories and what they’re doing. There is hope in that, but these distinctions have to be drawn out and that can only be done through debate and argument.
What do you think of the labour movement’s response?
I think we’ve lacked the courage to pick it apart. I can see why, there is a fear of what union members and Labour voters think, let alone the wider working class. It’s sensitive and tricky. So it becomes easier to concentrate on strands which have some legitimacy – the defeat of fascism, the sacrifice of working-class people to make that happen – but in practice that means merging into the dominant message.
If you have the conversation you can open it up, but it does take some courage. And not all of our organisations have enough. The Labour leadership exemplifies this trend on many issues. You can start to see the road they may be going down on nationalism but also I’d guess immigration. The problem is that this toothless approach just reinforces the idea these ideas can’t be challenged, and they become stronger. It makes it more difficult for all of us.
It’s striking the labour movement hasn’t even said much about the 1945 government, the reforms of the '40s, the NHS and stuff like that?
Yeah, they’re trying to keep close to the mainstream message. In terms of Labour, I think they are desperate to avoid the Corbyn tag and being called unpatriotic.
You’ve read that Morning Star article “Patriotism is good for you”, that came out the day before VE Day. It suggests a problem on the left too?
Even if you could strip out the crudest bits, that article confuses so many issues for the working class and the left. For instance the idea that if you want to support public ownership you can’t do that unless you’re patriotic and nationalist.
I also take issue with what he says about Cuba. The dynamic of nationalism in Cuba, which has been consistently under threat from the US, is completely different from in Britain. But in any case, when the Cubans send medical brigades overseas, it’s not nationalism. It’s because – I know you will disagree with this – they’re proud of the system of society they’ve created and the gains they’ve won for the working class. They’re trying to extend some of those gains to other countries, not suggest that in some way Cubans as a nation are better. It’s internationalism.
I think some union leaderships turn to nationalism because it’s an easier alternative to fighting in very difficult circumstances. You get this talk about competition, about supply and demand for labour, about workers coming into the country because of our failure in not repealing the anti-union laws, in not winning or even having the fights over pay, collective bargaining and workers’ rights. Let alone anything bigger. Nationalism is an easy argument which means we don’t have to get to grips with what we’ve lost and the size of the task in fighting back.
It’s easier than being radical and combative, and it goes with the flow of society as it is, as well as what a lot of union members think and feel. Some FBU members will have got out the flags yesterday. But it’s like what I said above in terms of the Labour Party. If our political leaders lack the courage to challenge and draw out the distinctions through debate and argument, it just reinforces the problem.
To even begin to turn things around, the socialist left has to take up these issues and confront the arguments head on, including inside Labour. It’s encouraging to see groups of socialists are putting forward arguments and proposals around migrants’ rights, international solidarity and class struggle within the party and Momentum.
You and your close comrades in the FBU have done a lot of migrants’ rights work. Could you say something about that?
We’ve done quite a few things. One recent one is the firefighters’ delegations to Calais we’ve organised [pictured above].
The patriotic system of ideas suggests I have more in common with the likes of Boris Johnson, who is pushing these policies that are killing workers, because we reside under the same flag, than I do with another working-class person who happens to come from under a different flag. When you meet and talk with migrants in somewhere like Calais it totally explodes that.
The hundreds of struggling working people in the camps in France and Belgium, and the hundreds of thousands or millions of migrants around Europe, along with working people here are my sisters and brothers, not the people attacking our services and safety here in Britain.
We did practical work to raise money and take stuff over, of course, but they weren't charity trips, they were solidarity and educational trips. It’s a public show of solidarity – working people showing solidarity to other working people. But also about learning from their facts, their stories, and bringing them back to people here.
In the FBU we have a very good history of internationalism, and that has been a great inspiration and educational tool for me. We’ve always said the firefighter family is international. That’s more than words, it’s a recognition of a shared experience and struggle. You start looking at that, the fact we face the same problems and the same struggle, and you ask what underlies it. The point is that our class is also international – we have the same place in the same system, regardless of flags.
I should say that the FBU has a number of great international solidarity projects, many of them connected to firefighters in other countries. For instance our members in Scotland have done fantastic work supporting firefighters in Palestine.
And what has the response to the Calais work been, among firefighters?
Largely very positive. Sadly our conference was cancelled this year, for obvious reasons, but I was made aware of a number of resolutions coming up from the membership supporting this project. We’ve had quite a few requests to get involved. Unsurprisingly there has been some objection to it, and claims it’s not the place of a union, but that’s a small minority.
It is the place of a union because we stand for the interests of the working class – our members, but also the working class in a wider sense. In fact it helps our immediate struggles too. It’s only when we are clear where the threat to our interests is coming from and who our enemies and allies are, and don’t allow ourselves to be misdirected, that we can really fight effectively. It’s a direct trade union and industrial issue as well as an issue of solidarity.
Do you support calls to delay Brexit?
The FBU has been very clear throughout the Brexit debate that the Tories are no friends of workers. They approach Brexit the same way they approach the fire service and everything else, as an opportunity to attack us.
Under any circumstances we would face that threat but it’s even worse now when the hard-line Tory Brexiters look likely to be delivered exactly what they want, in the mist of a very dangerous situation with the pandemic. Our executive voted last year to oppose a No Deal Brexit, and that is still right.
The FBU hasn’t discussed the question of extension specifically, but speaking for myself, it seems only rational to explore and seek an extension – given the situation we are in, but particularly under this anti-worker government. The polling is interesting: it seems clear that the bulk of working-class people, even many nationalists and Tories, can see what’s happening simply makes no sense. Another reminder that people aren’t idiots and that if we start conversations and make arguments we can progress. It’s very unfortunate that, once again, Labour isn’t taking the lead on this.