By Nick Holden
The agenda for the annual conference of the Fire Brigades' Union (at Bridlington, May 11-14) has just been published and there are several motions advocating disaffiliation from the Labour Party or the opening up of the political fund to allow branches to support non-Labour candidates.
The FBU conference three years ago voted for a position similar to that recently taken by the RMT (which resulted in the Labour Party National Executive expelling them) but following a year of lobbying by the union leadership the decision was reversed in 2002. Last year the conference was cancelled, and so this year's debate will be the first chance the union has had to debate its political representation since the collapse of the firefighters' strike.
Many activists in the union are attributing the failure of the FBU leadership to adequately fight for the union's position in that dispute to the union's links with the Labour Party.
Red Watch, the rank and file bulletin produced by firefighters either in, or close to, the SWP, points the finger at Andy Gilchrist and argues that his loyalty to the Labour Party prevented him from leading the union properly during the strike. That attitude is likely to command some significant support at the conference, and may well lead to the union voting to disaffiliate, or at least to allow Brigades to sponsor or support non-Labour candidates in some elections. This might suit the SWP, who would love to see some FBU branches backing candidates of the RESPECT coalition, but it doesn't actually answer the crucial questions facing the FBU.
For a start, it doesn't explain why non-affiliated unions are also entirely capable of fouling up industrial disputes. Neither does it adequately explain why the FBU leadership managed to run such a good internal campaign in support of the £30,000 demand in advance of the strike but then completely failed to fight for it once they'd got the mandate to do so.
What's really needed is a full post-mortem of the dispute, and a recognition that the union could have done more, even inside the Labour Party, to generate support for its position and isolate the government, but the leadership chose not to do so. Such an accounting is not proposed by any of the motions to conference, and it is a significant absence.
Despite having had, albeit only for twelve months, the same policy as that which led to the RMT being expelled from the Labour Party, the FBU has issued no statement about the expulsion of the RMT. FBU activists should be demanding that the EC offers support to the RMT's demand for re-instatement.
The choice facing FBU activists is not "leave the Labour Party, or be loyal to Blair". Disaffiliating from the Labour Party without a clear strategy for how to fight Blair politically would actually weaken the union's voice in politics, not strengthen it, although that might not matter to those whose main concern is diverting a few thousand pounds from the unions into electoral adventures like RESPECT. But to firefighters who seriously want to learn the lessons of the last dispute, the question of affiliation to the Labour Party should come second to the question of how they get a union leadership that fights for its union's policies in every arena to which it has access.
The most useful motions in this respect are those calling for the EC meetings to be fully minuted in future, and for those minutes to be circulated to branches.
Amendments to the resolutions have to be submitted by 1 March and it's to be hoped that the new Grassroots FBU rank and file body might manage to submit some amendments to the motion from Kent calling for the democratisation of the political fund, in order to flesh out a concrete strategy of political representation for the union - one that fights Blair inside the Labour Party, campaigns for the RMT to be re-admitted to membership, and develops, with other unions, a perspective of trade union political representation.
The Grassroots initiative itself is a promising sign, bringing together activists from the previously London-centred "Brunswick Group" and Red Watch, as well as other unaffiliated activists. There are, inevitably, teething problems, with the SWP supporters of Red Watch apparently reluctant to dissolve their organisational identity into the new group.
But, as long as the new grouping can develop a perspective centred on uniting activists to fight for the union to assert itself, and not get sidelined into either an exclusively electoralist faction or a 'coalition' that offers no democratic structures for activists to involve themselves in, it bodes well for the union as a whole that there is, at last, an identifiable force to advocate the interests of rank and file FBU members against the interests of the entrenched bureaucracy.
- For more information on the Grassroots FBU click here