Low turnout as dispute falters

There was a disappointingly small attendance at the March 1 rank and file conference to defend public services and trade union rights, called by the London region of the Fire Brigades Union. Although the Camden Centre holds over 1,000 people, only 100 or so turned up - 20 or 30 firefighters were joined by several dozen members and supporters of various left groups, in and out of the Labour Party. By the middle of the afternoon, numbers had dropped, as most of the firefighters had by then drifted away. In one sense the low attendance was not surprising, considering the generally directionless nature of the firefighters' dispute and the widely held belief that it has for some time been petering out towards a settlement based on an FBU retreat on several fronts. Only two militant firefighters spoke from the floor, both of them members of left groups. In another sense, though, the poor turnout was surprising, since the whole movement has undoubtedly been given a huge morale-lifting boost by the events of February 15. As PCSU general secretary Mark Serwotka stated, the fact that two million came out in the London anti-war protest provides a "magnificent opportunity for the trade unions". The government, he said, has been shown to have "no democratic mandate - either for the war or for the break-up of public services". The other platform speaker, FBU general secretary Andy Gilchrist, only referred to the war and demonstrations in passing, however. His speech made clear the defensive nature of the firefighters' struggle - it was now about ensuring that "the finest fire service in the world continues to be just that". Although he warned FBU members present that they were still on seven days' notice ("if the offer is insufficient, we will be taking national industrial action"), he held out the possibility that the employers' latest proposals, due today, could equally see an executive recommendation for acceptance. Clearly the leadership is looking to strike a face-saving deal. Brother Gilchrist steered clear of his previous "real Labour" remarks. Instead he stated that the FBU would "continue to try to persuade the Labour government to change course" - a rather different emphasis. Comrade Serwotka, however, thought we "must aspire to something better" - he hoped there was "no divide between those inside and those outside the Labour Party": we must "increasingly work together to forge some sort of alternative", he said, holding out the example of the Scottish Socialist Party. The afternoon session proved to be worthwhile despite the absence in the morning of any clear elucidation of a short-term winning strategy for those like the firefighters and despite the departure of the two union general secretaries. Billed as a debate between Matt Wrack of the Socialist Alliance and John McDonnell MP, the session saw a useful exchange between those who still view the Labour Party as the main site for socialist struggle and those who believe that we need to organise to build an alternative outside. Former Militant Tendency supporter McDonnell arrived late and left early, so did not hear much of comrade Wrack's opening remarks and none of his reply. It seems that the MP for Hayes and Harlington does not believe he has much to gain from listening to other people's viewpoints. Comrade Wrack's message was blunt: the working class - in particular the union membership - has no political representation, as the FBU dispute shows only too clearly. We should stop funding Labour politicians who attack us and whose politics are virtually identical to those of the Tories and Liberal Democrats. This means moving towards the democratisation of the union funds, allowing them to be used to finance non-Labour candidates. The union movement should, when the occasion arises, stand candidates of its own - firefighters in Scotland are about to do just that, he said. Comrade Wrack concluded by reiterating his view that the question of affiliation to the Labour Party was a tactical one: he favoured the maximum unity between socialists working inside and outside Labour. Comrade McDonnell soon showed that he had learnt nothing (or perhaps too much) from his years in Militant. The Labour Party, he said, was "founded to establish socialism" and, what is more, the post-World War II Labour administration was "fundamentally a socialist government". Even under Harold Wilson "a strain of socialism" remained in the party, as demonstrated by Wilson's "attempts to plan the economy". The Socialist Campaign Group was organising to "take back the Labour Party - and it's working," he added. There were now probably fewer than 100,000 Labour members, so it was obviously a straightforward matter to "take over the constituency parties" - 25 comrades in each CLP, made up of individuals or union delegates, would be enough, he estimated. At a time when less than 10% of Labour members back Blair's position on the war, now is the time to make our move: "For christ's sake, don't leave us isolated," he implored. "What Blair wants you to do is disaffiliate." He was backed up by several comrades from Workers Action, Socialist Appeal and other entrists, who called all socialists to join Labour and all trade unions who were not already affiliated to do so. If they did, the deselection of pro-war MPs would be within sight. Marcus Ström of the CPGB made a telling intervention. He ridiculed those speakers who presented a "false dichotomy" - fight in the Labour Party or build an alternative. Why was it not possible to do both? He was not in favour of immediate disaffiliation and pointed out that, although he might vote for comrade McDonnell, his own Labour MP was that friend of the firefighters, Nick Raynsford. Were comrades really suggesting that he vote for "this scumbag"? Comrade Ström also took issue with McDonnell's "rosy" version of Labour's imperialist past. This caused the MP to put on a rather more leftwing face: "I follow the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky, who saw Labour as a terrain of struggle". Apparently it was also part of that tradition to work "in and against the state" and in that way "achieve the Leninist position of smashing the state". He finished by describing Tony Blair as a "representative of capitalism" who was "more effective than the Tories". But "We're taking him on and beginning to win!" (he meant the Campaign Group and the Labour left). In reply Matt Wrack repeated the rather less optimistic opinion of John Austen MP: that the Blair leadership had now cut off all possibility of a constitutional challenge. Nevertheless it was important to support the fight of socialists in the Labour Party who were opposing Blair, even though he doubted whether those who, for example, wanted to deselect Raynsford would be successful. At a time when the "vast majority of FBU members were not in favour of paying a penny" into Labour's coffers, how could he realistically "turn round and tell them to join Blair's party"? Now was "tactically the wrong time" for disaffiliation, since there was clearly no alternative in existence, but the point was to develop tactics while we were affiliated, he concluded. "We need a strategy to break the working class from the Blairites." Peter Manson