Democratisation still on the agenda

The annual conference of the Fire Brigades Union, meeting in Bridlington from May 14-17, saw the Labour-loyal leadership regain ground over the left in its attempt to break the union from its automatic backing of Blair's party through the democratisation of the political fund. At last year's conference the executive council was taken by surprise by the backing for the successful motion, which committed the FBU to support only those Labour candidates and organisations prepared to endorse union policy. The resolution, bitterly opposed by the leadership, also allowed for the possibility of union support for candidates standing against New Labour, and instructed the EC to examine whether the new policy would require a rule change. The executive produced a statement which concluded - as had those who were in favour of democratisation - that no rule change was necessary. But the statement went on to say that the effect of the 2001 resolution would be to "endanger 70 years of affiliation to the Labour Party" and claimed that this was the real agenda of the left. If those proposing the change were honest, the leadership stated, they would submit a simple motion proposing straightforward disaffiliation. Leading Socialist Alliance activist Matt Wrack, speaking against the adoption of the document, rebutted this claim. Far from the movers of last year's resolution wanting the union to simply walk away from the Labour Party, they were proposing a long-term fight to win union members to question the relationship with politicians who pursue an anti-union agenda of cuts and privatisation. Comrade Wrack, author of the SA pamphlet Whose money is it anyway?, put forward the example of the FBU's London region voting to give money to Ken Livingstone's campaign for London mayor in 2000. Livingstone, not wishing to upset the union bureaucracy, had returned the cheque, but, had he accepted London's cash, that would not necessarily have led to disaffiliation. Comrade Wrack stated that London was in favour of organising in defence of any union threatened with expulsion by the Labour executive for the 'crime' of supporting candidates who said they would back union policy. Any moves to disaffiliate would depend on the overall balance of forces, he argued. In the meantime there was a battle to be fought in every union. It soon became clear that this year the executive had done its work, putting pressure on the regions to ensure that delegates knew there was a 'three-line whip' in operation on this question. The Socialist Alliance - mentioned by name by general secretary Andy Gilchrist in his speech - was held up as the bogeyman and the debate on the political fund was presented as a diversion from the 'more pressing' questions, not least that of pay. The leadership had planned the agenda carefully so that the motion on pay was taken before its policy document on relations with Labour. The executive council itself was proposing to ditch the current wages formula - in operation for the last 25 years - and campaign for basic pay to be boosted to £30,000, an increase of no less than 40%. Not surprisingly, the EC motion on wages was passed overwhelmingly - as was its policy document on the link with Labour. Brigades in favour of democratisation were London and East Anglia and, to a lesser extent, the West Midlands. Nevertheless the question of the political fund is now well and truly on the agenda. Even those who spoke most strongly in favour of continuing to give unconditional backing to Labour did so in a manner that was highly apologetic: 'I know they are bad, but what choice have we got?' Comrade Wrack told me: "Despite taking a step back from last year, the debate has moved on from where we were two years ago. Under the new policy regional committees may still 'consider' support for non-Labour candidates and put their proposals to the EC - although the executive make clear elsewhere in their resolution that they would not allow such support. This represents a shift in policy - especially if we had a different EC." Comrade Wrack was not at all disheartened by this outcome, knowing full well that it is the rank and file that must be won over to actively influence the union leadership: "There was a massive swing against us compared to 2001. But, just like last year, it was all down to the delegates - the debate hasn't taken place in the branches; it hasn't been taken to the membership. One delegate told me that his brigade had decided not to put the question to his branches - the brigade committee wanted to back the executive, but they knew the branches would tell them the opposite. "The rank and file is definitely saying that we shouldn't automatically support New Labour. Our job is to change that passive feeling into an active force for change" Peter Manson