Around the web: Online expression

Phil Hamilton looks at the website of the Fire Brigades Union

The recommendation to accept a 16% pay deal (staggered over two years) by the Fire Brigades Union executive seems to signal - at least where the rightwing press are concerned - the end of the nine-month-long dispute. With comments such as “We have before us a proposed agreement that differs significantly from previous offers” (Andy Gilchrist), it would seem that the leadership are no longer prepared to fight for a better deal (The Daily Telegraph May 21). But what of the rank and file firefighters? Do they share this pessimism? Looking at the ‘30k fire pay’ rank-and-file site, it would appear not, if the comments expressed in its forum are anything to go by.

First impressions are favourable: the site comes over as compact and relatively well-designed, managing to cram a lot of information into minimal space. The greater portion of the home page is divided into 10 clearly delineated sections. The first, ‘Latest news stories’, is self-explanatory and links to relevant pieces from the mainstream press, while ‘Older news’ (surprisingly) links to … older news from the beginnings of the current dispute in March last year. ‘Forum’ highlights the last five posts and provides a link to the bulletin board proper.

A comprehensive overview of this feature cannot be carried out here, but what struck me was the forum culture. Like other discussion sites (see, for instance, Weekly Worker April 17), the primary issues around the FBU struggle are debated out. But unlike these, there appears to be a deep sense of solidarity and support. For example, one poster writes: “This site has kept me going through the ups and downs of this dispute and I have made some great friends as well.” A touch of this would not go amiss on most left internet communities.

Next up is the donation page for site maintenance - money can either be sent via snail mail or by a secure online form for credit and debit card users. This is followed by a plug for ‘30k fire pay’ T-shirts. The ‘Reports and documents’ section is a must for an understanding of the dispute. The webmaster has to be congratulated for bringing together the entire Bain report (in pdf and zipped file versions), the supposedly secret Pathfinder report, the Bain position paper, and the draft agreement that John Prescott famously could not get out of bed for.

Skipping to the bottom of the page, we have a call to ‘shun The Sun’ - a worthy boycott, if there ever was one. Above this, the strike dates have been listed and highlighted according to whether they were suspended or took place. Finally we have the light-hearted ‘What’s new’ section - a selection of “best dressed” fire station photos. I must admit to being tickled by ‘Celebrity support’ - not only does it include Dirk Benedict of A Team fame, but the section is highlighted by ex-Eastender Ross Kemp, husband of Sun editor Rebekah Wade. Could this be a well-placed, two-fingered ‘Shun the Sun salute?

The ‘Main menu’ navigation bar provides more background to the struggle. There is a ‘Frequently asked questions’, recent firefighter history, an argument justifying the call for 30k, pay scales, and salary comparisons with the police and train drivers. There are also action-related announcements, such as meetings, local contact details and the like. I am surprised there is no downloadable campaign material, and this is not even compensated via the ‘Lobby your MP’ page. Clicking on ‘Email your MP’ takes you to an FBU campaign page that unfortunately offers little.

Finally, ‘Sites of interest’ is a small list of five links. These are the official FBU site, the FBU strike bulletin archive, fp4f.com (the TUC site in support of fair pay for firefighters), the BBC, Local Government Association and the office of the deputy prime minister. This could have been broadened out to include other union, political and resource links.

That said, considering this site is the work of Simon Hickman (a firefighter from Manchester), it is better than a great many websites for left groups. Downloads and links aside, it fulfils the needs of rank and file workers engaged in industrial action because it acts as both a locus and support mechanism, effectively becoming the online expression of participating firefighters, their families and supporters. Rather than the common ‘this is who we are; this is what we say’ left approach to its websites, I would suggest that webmasters give the design aspects on show here some serious consideration.