Matt Wrack victory

In a blow against the incumbent bureaucracy, London regional secretary Matt Wrack has been elected assistant general secretary (AGS) of the Fire Brigades Union, defeating the candidate of the established leadership, national officer John McGhee. Comrade Wrack is a former member of the Socialist Party in England and Wales - like many others he left quietly - and was a keen supporter of the Socialist Alliance. In a low turnout - for the FBU - comrade Wrack won 6,260 votes, as against 5,527 for McGhee. The third candidate, Dean Mills, picked up 1,981. The fact that only 27% of the membership cast a vote is a reflection of the current demoralisation following the FBU's mauling in the 2002-03 fire service dispute. However, this sentiment is combined with an intense bitterness directed against the leadership clique around general secretary Andy Gilchrist - almost universally blamed for the disastrous handling of the dispute. This resentment is now being translated into the election of comrades who can be described as coming from, or supporting, the rank and file left wing, as opposed to the bureaucratic left typified by Gilchrist himself (this is the third such result in the FBU over recent months). The Left Group leadership around Gilchrist had pulled out all the stops in attempting to ensure a McGhee victory and is now said to be at a loss as to how to retain its grip on the union - especially in view of comrade Wrack's announcement, made immediately after his victory, that he will now challenge for the post of general secretary, for which the nomination process is already underway. Gilchrist himself looks like being the next casualty. In an attempt to stem the tide, the bureaucracy had effectively put the union machinery at McGhee's disposal. For example, McGhee's election slogan, 'Putting members first', mysteriously began appearing in official reports wherever his name was mentioned. Then an "unexpectedly large surplus" was suddenly discovered in the accident and injury fund - thanks to the attentiveness of John McGhee who had - entirely coincidentally, of course - just taken over the portfolio. McGhee proposed that this surplus be translated into a "substantial rise in benefits for the most vulnerable members". No details of the surplus, how it came to light or the new benefits have yet been released. Gilchrist himself intervened very directly in the AGS election in a way that can only be viewed as favouring McGhee - writing to the membership criticising both rival candidates by name. Comrade Wrack had signed a circular sent out on behalf of the London regional committee, which included a template letter for members to send to their insurance companies, some of which had been making noises about insufficient cover in the event of injury caused by terrorist attack. The very next day, Gilchrist sent out a letter to the same recipients, criticising comrade Wrack personally for allegedly getting his facts wrong and "scaremongering". Whatever the truth of the matter, a general secretary genuinely worried that erroneous information had been distributed (as opposed to wishing to score points on behalf of a rival candidate) would surely have contacted the officer or committee concerned, so that a correction could be issued from the original source. As it was, members received within two days completely contradictory information from different levels of the union. Gilchrist also intervened in a similar way in relation to the 'compromise candidate', Dean Mills, the EC member for the South of England. Mills referred to the accident and injury 'windfall' in his election address, stating that the union should aim to deliver improved benefits on a permanent basis, not just as a one-off prior to elections. Incredibly, Gilchrist took it upon himself to send out a circular to all members attempting to rebut what had appeared in an election address and again referring to Mills directly. Another way in which the bureaucracy bends the rules is through its ban on canvassing (the FBU is by no means the only union to enforce such a measure). This is by its very nature undemocratic, favouring current office-holders. Candidates are barred from discussing in writing, except in the official statement sent to all members, their election platform. Other union members are permitted to canvass on candidates' behalf, but if candidates are quoted in print they may themselves be accused of contravening the rule. Whereas rank and file support can only be extended through word of mouth, all the official channels - branch circulars, membership bulletins, union journals, the official website - are open to those standing for re-election, who clearly are entitled to report what tremendous progress the current leadership is making in whatever negotiations are taking place. And, of course, the general secretary feels free to slur his rivals in union circulars. There is, however, a widespread feeling that Gilchrist's days are numbered. Branch nominations for general secretary are now being collected and balloting will in all likelihood begin at the end of March, with the result announced in May, shortly before annual conference. For the AGS election comrade Wrack received 159 branch nominations (just over half of them from London), as opposed to 174 for McGhee. This time, comrade Wrack could well achieve considerably more, and his close supporters are completely confident that he will win the ballot. Much of Gilchrist's backing comes from the layer of regional officials, who are largely viewed as leadership loyalists, but lower down things are different. At the time of writing, it looks almost certain that it will be a two-horse race: Wrack against Gilchrist. Previously it had been thought that the Left Group dominating the EC would attempt to persuade Gilchrist not to seek re-election, since he was so discredited that he stood little chance. There was talk of an alternative candidate being put forward to hold the fort, but the AGS result has put paid to that notion. Recently Gilchrist has been addressing brigade and branch meetings up and down the country in a last-ditch attempt to win back some popularity. Of course the election of one person can hardly transform the FBU into a fighting machine overnight. But the victory of comrade Wrack can be used by militants as their opportunity to make gains - if they organise independently and on a fighting political programme. Comrade Wrack should be supported "¦ but only to the extent that he fights for the interests of the FBU's membership and those of the working class as a whole. In this context a Marxist party - a Communist Party - is sorely needed. Trade unionism, even militant trade unionism, is inherently limited to bargaining within capitalism and prone to sectionalism. Only a Marxist party can successfully lead the working class in the global struggle to supersede capitalism. At the moment the FBU is not in a healthy state. One of the effects of the post-dispute settlement is that working conditions have largely been devolved locally, weakening the union's national capacity to act. This situation, combined with the reluctance to become drawn into another protracted dispute, will not suddenly be transformed with the election of a new leadership. Nevertheless, it is clear that it would be a start. In stark contrast to Gilchrist, comrade Wrack stands four square for the democratisation of the union. In recent months the Gilchrist regime has been characterised by arbitrariness, misuse of disciplinary procedures and unconstitutional attempts to gag and cripple opponents. Comrade Wrack, on the other hand, says he is for free and open debate and wants to empower the grassroots, the brigades, branches and union conference. Typical of the leadership's bureaucratic clampdown was its attack on the rank and file organisation, Grassroots FBU, which has now been closed down in view of the threats of disciplinary action made against four leading comrades alleged to be associated with it: comrade Wrack himself, Paul Embery, Andy Dark and Gordon Fielding. The leadership was unable to follow the ludicrous charges through, but it has made it clear that a rule change it intends to implement at this year's annual conference will enable it to do just that. The leadership effectively banned Grassroots, which was declared (without the slightest hint of evidence) an "unauthorised organisation operating in the FBU contrary to the policies of the union, and/or in a way prejudicial to the interests of the union". However, a new rank and file organ, the Phoenix Bulletin, has appeared out of the Grassroots FBU ashes. Since this is 'only' a bulletin, without an elected treasurer, secretary, etc, it is thought that it cannot be accused of being "a union within a union", as was Grassroots. However, the Phoenix Bulletin has no website and does not even pretend to organise, as Grassroots was able to do. Clearly, the Grassroots FBU should be quickly revived - it must rise, yes, like the phoenix. Red Watch is not a genuine rank and file paper nor does it represent a genuine rank and file movement - just a cynical front for the SWP bureaucratic sect. Another website the leadership could now well do without is UK Fire, which came into existence during the early days of the dispute. At first it virtually carried the leadership line, even enjoying a link from the official FBU site - with the advantage for the leadership that its exhortations and claims were being spontaneously echoed by somewhat naive rank and file members. However, as the dispute progressed, increasingly critical voices were raised. Today the contributors are overwhelmingly hostile to the Gilchrist leadership - which, of course, is a reflection of the highly charged sentiment felt, at least amongst the activists. Recently leadership figures have taken to slurring these contributors, trying to make out that they represent a destructive minority and highlighting the very occasional racist or homophobic views that are posted there (anonymously, of course), claiming them as typical. In addition to defending and extending the union's democracy, comrade Wrack has committed himself to take only the average wage of an FBU member. The general secretary's salary is the equivalent of a senior divisional officer in the fire service - around £55,000. Comrade Wrack's pledge would see him take around half of that, with the excess in all likelihood going into a separate campaigning fund. Excellent. Especially as there are those on the left who have, of course, abandoned this basic working class principle in the last year or so. In his pamphlet The awkward squad the SWP's Martin Smith, now SWP national organiser, insisted that rank and file candidates in union elections would pledge to only take the average member's wage. But that was before Respect. Now the SWP and its apologists claim that this principle is only applicable for committed revolutionaries, or in a revolutionary situation "¦ or even only after the revolution. During the AGS campaign there was something of a mixed reaction to comrade Wrack's commitment. While many saw it correctly as representing a desire not to materially rise above or stand apart from the rank and file, others took the attitude that the main thing was the defeat of the current leadership. In fact there is a strand of opinion amongst the membership that actively supports paying salaries to the level of the employers - 'If their side deserves it, so does ours'. Nevertheless comrade Wrack is intent on staying close to the rank and file and shunning the pampered existence of the typical union bureaucrat (who not only get fat salaries, but union cars and generous expense accounts "¦ and £800 curries). Comrade Wrack, was one of the prime movers of the demand to democratise union political funds (he was the author of the Socialist Alliance pamphlet Whose money is it anyway?). He will therefore oppose any attempt to return the union to the old days of writing a blank cheque to Labour. The 2004 annual conference saw the FBU disaffiliate - a wrong move, but understandable, given the intensity of the anti-Labour feeling following the 2002-03 dispute. Perhaps it is the Left Group's commitment to the re-election of a Labour government and to causes like Cuban solidarity, not to mention blocks of shares in the Peoples Press Printing Society, that has earned it the backing of the Communist Party of Britain's Morning Star. In an article entitled 'What other option did the FBU have?', Tom Sibley is completely uncritical of the Gilchrist leadership. Writing before the AGS ballot was completed, he notes: ""¦ the two most prominent leaders during the strike, incumbent general secretary Andy Gilchrist and John McGhee, the campaign coordinator during the dispute, will be challenged by candidates critical of the way that the dispute was handled by the union's national leadership. The challengers will attempt to portray the settlement as a sell-out brought about by senior union officials capitulating to pressures applied by Labour ministers and TUC leaders" (Morning Star January 14). Without mentioning Matt Wrack by name, Sibley complains bitterly about his alleged "Trotskyite rhetoric that you can't trust your leaders and that it is rank and file organisation and activity alone to which members should look". He sets out to defend the indefensible, only just stopping short of claiming that the FBU dispute was a victory: "By any objective measure, the settlement was rather favourable for FBU members," he writes - even though firefighters know from their own daily experience what it has meant in terms of the erosion of working conditions. In fact it is difficult to find any rank and file FBU member who believes it was a good deal. However, to say so for Sibley is "to rubbish the achievements of the 2002-04 dispute "¦. In one sense, the FBU leadership was a victim of its own success. It prepared the membership so well in the lead-up to the dispute that the firefighters "¦ were and remain totally convinced that the job they do is worth £30,000 per year, which was the basis of the original claim." Perhaps the most astonishing part of Sibley's article is the statement that "Throughout the dispute there was no gap between the rank and file and the leadership." In reality the rank and file is deeply alienated from the leadership. The only way this rift can be healed is through electing new leaders who are fully accountable and fully committed to the rank and file. Pretending that there is no problem is just toadying nonsense. Today, says Sibley, "The "¦ FBU remains a powerful union able to protect its members from management and government attacks. On the evidence of the recent dispute, it is doubtful that this position can be maintained should the top positions in the union pass to those critics of the leadership who make a virtue of political isolation and industrial anarchy and who have no experience of leadership at national level." Thankfully, the rank and file ignored his advice for the AGS election and look like doing the same for the general secretary too. Sibley is correct in one respect though: the union is still intact and, given the right conditions, would be prepared to fight again. It is just that nobody trusts the Gilchrist leadership to head any future campaign. Alan Fox