Politics needed

There was little new in the much-heralded Bain report on the fire service, published on December 16. Sir George admits as much himself: "The purpose of the review was not to conduct a root and branch examination of the fire service: there was not time for this, nor was there a need. The major issues facing the service have been well documented in a series of reports over many years" (see www.fbu.org.uk). The establishment have indeed been keen to 'modernise' the service for decades now - its practices are rooted in "the period before World War II", according to the Financial Times (December 17) - but successive governments have been unsuccessful in overcoming resistance from firefighters. However, Tony Blair believes he is scenting victory. Interviewed the day after the report's publication, Matt Wrack - the London regional organiser of the Fire Brigades Union - agreed that it contained "no great surprises". What has changed since the last time we spoke is the mood of the rank and file: "There is confusion and anger in the ranks," he said. "Members are at a little bit of a loss about what the union strategy actually is. It is certainly taking the wind out of the sails of the campaign. There are indications that management is trying to take the initiative back." Comrade Wrack is a critical but loyal member of the Socialist Party and author of the Socialist Alliance's influential pamphlet on the political fund, Whose money is it anyway? Not surprisingly, he is unimpressed with the leadership's retreats in the face of government and employer attacks. But - more controversially - he also believes that FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist's attack on Labour at the Manchester rally of the Socialist Campaign Group was ill judged. Gilchrist bluntly declared: "I'm quite prepared to replace New Labour with what I am prepared to call real Labour." He had already linked the dispute to the politics of the looming war when he denounced the government for being able to find "a billion to bomb innocent men, women and children in Iraq in a futile attempt to bomb them into democracy", while denying a decent wage to firefighters. Comrade Wrack dismisses this as badly considered rhetoric: "I think Gilchrist made a mistake in his speech in Manchester." His actual position is "not to build an alternative to Labour - he wants to stay within Labour and change it from within." So comrade Wrack reckons he should not have departed from the "idea that this is a pay dispute". True, there are "politics involved", and the government and FBU members are "aware of that" - there were "daily discussions" on the picket lines. However, the comrade believes that Gilchrist's speech "was a bit of grandstanding". "I suppose that's not the majority view on the left," he says, "but I thought it was tactically silly." One of the things you have to do when you are talking to the press is to "stick to the central point and this is about pay". Where has the demand for £30,000 a year gone now? "Instead, we are talking about other issues - it's a mistake." Though wrong, this stance is understandable. The press and the whole of the government machine were waiting for Gilchrist to make his speech in Manchester. And once he had spoken, a full-blown, carefully planned propaganda operation was put into effect. The problem was not that Gilchrist had linked the firefighters' dispute to politics - of course, everything is political - but that his politics and those of the FBU are so appallingly weak. The reformist left has no realistic programme and no realistic strategy to fight a Labour government, let alone plans for an alternative government . Faced with a concerted propaganda offensive, the FBU executive crumpled and quickly knocked Gilchrist into line. Nor were the rank and file immune. As a result what began as an offensive strike has been turned into its opposite. The 40% pay claim has to all intents and purposes been abandoned. Worse, firefighters are in danger of losing precious, hard won gains in terms of control and conditions for a miserable 11% over two years. And that along with swingeing cuts in the number of firefighters. How to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? We say that the dispute needs more politics, not less. FBU members need hard politics if they are to take on and overcome the hard politics of government and the capitalist class it serves. * War against Iraq is now imminent. The government is readying troops and releasing vast amounts of money from the reserves in order to join with Bush and US imperialism in bringing down the regime of Saddam Hussein and installing a pliant satrap in Baghdad. When the war actually comes, the pressure on any 'enemy within' will become intense. Without a clear political stance against the war the drive to impose peace on the home front will be impossible to resist. * Without hard politics, it will prove extraordinarily difficult to form any kind of durable unity with other public sector workers or wider sections of the class. Already, the defensive stance of the FBU has made effective solidarity harder to deliver. The RMT has retreated, along with Aself, Amicus, the GMB, etc. The firefighters' support committees are empty shells. A sectional dispute that centres on pay alone allows the government to isolate and take on one group of workers after another. * The union must take the political issue of 'modernisation' out of the hands of government and the employers. Do not sell hard won conditions, jobs and measures of workers' control for a pay increase that can easily be wiped out with an upturn in inflation. Firefighters need their own agenda. Improve pay, yes. But also fight to improve conditions, including the political question of extending the elements of workers' control that already exists in the industry through the watch system. * In contrast to the last national strike in 1977, there is no independent organisation of the rank and file that can hold the leadership to account and take initiatives of its own if the trade union bureaucracy fails to deliver. The absence of such a network is now costing the firefighters dear and needs to be rectified as soon as feasible. * Rather than shy away from Gilchrist's comments on New Labour, militant FBU members should draw out their political lessons. Labour MPs should be challenged to make clear what side they are on, to endorse the demands of the union and condemn the Blairites. Affiliated unions and Labour members should also fight for an emergency Labour Party conference to hold the leadership to account on the firefighters and the impending war on Iraq. More than that, to the extent that the Labour Party proves to be impervious to change and unable to serve the working class, the more urgent becomes the necessity of building an alternative. Instead of tearing up Labour Party cards in disgust, FBU militants should fight within the Labour Party. But they should also open discussions with the Socialist Alliance with a view to transforming it into the kind of party we need if we are not only to challenge New Labour but finally rid ourselves of the capitalist system of war and exploitation. Without a winning strategy, even the best militants like comrade Wrack are left with the forlorn hope that divisions in the ranks of the opposition will somehow spontaneously emerge. He told us in conclusion that "the key issue is whether the employers will now insist that any agreement is based on Bain, or whether they try to distant themselves from it a little. My guess is that they want the FBU leadership to take a new settlement to a recall conference. So they may need to put some distance between themselves and Bain - although their agenda is much the same at the end of the day. The employers are perhaps a bit more restrained. What matters now is their resolve." What matters more is the resolve of rank and file firefighters and an aggressive, winning strategy that can draw others sections of the class into a political front against this government. If such working class unity was a reality, then real divisions between the employers and the government might open up. Without it, the dispute will face serious problems in the new year. Mark Fischer