Firefighers at the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) annual conference in Southport in Merseyside last week voted decisively against reaffliation to the Labour Party.
The FBU disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 2004. Firefighters were furious over how the Labour government had betrayed them during their 2002-3 national strike over pay.
The FBU executive, led by general secretary Matt Wrack, argued that the union should not restore its links to Labour at present, but called for the union to hold a “structured debate” around the question.
A rival motion, proposed by South Yorkshire, called on the union to immediately reaffiliate to Labour. Supporters of reaffiliation argued that disaffiliation had weakened the left inside the Labour Party and diminished the FBU’s influence on fire authorities under Labour control.
Most delegates rejected these arguments. “The Labour Party got it wrong on Iraq, wrong on Afghanistan, wrong on tuition fees, wrong on privatisation – we should not support that party,” said Mark Dunne from Merseyside FBU.
Linda Smith from London said the FBU’s political strategy should follow the lead of unions such as the PCS, which used its political fund to lobby for union policies without being affiliated to Labour.
She also criticised the executive’s policy statement for effectively laying the groundwork for reaffiliating to Labour in the future.
Tony Maguire from Northern Ireland – who moved the motion to disaffiliate in 2004 – also opposed any move to return to Labour. “Three years ago we took a historic step to leave the Labour Party,” he said.
“It’s easy to claim it was because of the pay dispute, but we left for a host of other reasons too.
“Those who opposed disaffiliation were wrong in 2004 and they are wrong now.”
He dismissed arguments that the Labour Party was the only possible vehicle for working class political representation as “sentimentality”. Labour was “irreformable, irredeemable – a lost cause”, he added.
The executive’s position was carried with an overwhelming majority.
South Yorkshire’s motion to reaffiliate to Labour consequently fell and was not voted on directly.
A group of firefighters who unsuccessfully took the FBU to court after the union expelled them received secret help with their legal costs from Merseyside Fire Authority, according to documents leaked to the Liverpool Daily Post.
The authority granted eight of the 11 firefighters secret interest-free loans of up to £70,000. The group of 11 firefighters was expelled from the union for signing up to a management plan that involved “co-responding” – using firefighters to provide emergency medical cover.
The FBU opposes co-responding on the grounds that it is a cost-cutting measure pushed by management that undermines public safety and opens the door to downgrading of the ambulance service.
Earlier this month the high court decided in favour of FBU. News of the funding by Merseyside Fire Authority angered delegates at the conference. Labour is the largest party on the authority, which has a Labour chair.
Last year saw Merseyside firefighters undertake a bitter but successful 26 days of strike action against a bullying and cost-cutting programme pushed through by the region’s chief fire officer Tony McGuirk.
The union’s executive proposed to open negotiations with management over co-responding. But this suggestion was roundly rejected by delegates, who argued that the union’s position was based on socialist principles and had been vindicated on two separate occasions when challenged in the courts.
Other motions at the conference pledged the union to keep fighting over pay and conditions and against management attempts to “modernise” the fire service by cutting costs.
Two motions that sought to strip executive committee members representing minorities of their voting rights – a proposal welcomed by the Daily Mail as a blow against “political correctness” – were withdrawn before the conference after discussions with the executive.