The leadership of the FBU are preparing to follow the RMT into conflict with the Labour Party leadership, by proposing to next month's FBU conference a shake-up of the union's political activity. This will include a reduction in donations to the Labour Party, and a move which would return FBU policy to the position of the 2001 conference - with the exception that this time, the leadership will be proposing it, rather than fighting it.
The conference agenda contains motions calling for disaffiliation from Labour, and it is in the face of these calls that the EC has agreed to put a "middle ground" position, opening up the union's political fund for other, non-Labour campaigns and, possibly, candidates, but maintaining the affiliation. This mirrors the position taken by the RMT which the Labour leadership claimed put them outside the rules.
Although it's understandable that firefighters are angry at Labour's assault on them during the pay dispute last year, knee-jerk calls to disaffiliate are actually less useful now than a serious fight against Blair. If the EC are serious about launching such a fight, then their "middle-way" proposals would actually be the best outcome from FBU conference.
West Midlands firefighter and chair of Grassroots FBU, Steve Godward comments, "The anger at the FBU's relationship with Labour is manifested in many resolutions to Annual Conference for democratisation of our political fund. The RMT's decision and the trade unions backing on the Labour National Executive for expulsion place both the FBU and the Labour Party in a predicament. Will Labour expel another trade union in the run up to local and European elections? How can Gilchrist convince the membership that our only political home is the Labour Party when they gave us such a kicking in the dispute?
"Again this proves the necessity for a workers' party. In Scotland the SSP provides a platform for the needs of our class. It was hoped by many that the Socialist Alliance would be the organisation in England that would provide the basis for a future party. So who becomes the beneficiary of the FBU political fund if we dare to challenge the Labour Party's grip on our money?"
The union leadership will give its backing to the Labour Representation Committee, now being organised by rebel left MP John McDonnell and former ASLEF General Secretary, Mick Rix. That will in part be an attempt to head off those calling for disaffiliation, but that won't lessen the political significance of a major industrial union and Labour affiliate giving full support to a campaign to re-assert the idea of trade union and working class political representation, against the Blair model of media types and wannabe barristers claiming to speak for "the people".
"The way ahead is full of what ifs, but the evolution of a Grassroots FBU is a step forward for rank and file FBU members to debate and agree a way forward. However, the absence of a political alternative for the working class is in the hands of us all," argues Godward.
By Nick Holden
Steve Godward is still not back at work despite a judgement in his favour last month. The West Midlands Fire Authority say they are taking legal advice, and the FBU appear reluctant to promote Steve's case, since they know that they've already signed away the rights and protections which won Steve back his job - he will be the last firefighter to have the right of appeal to the Deputy Prime Minister against unfair dismissal.