STEVE GREGG has been a firefighter for 26 years. He is north east regional secretary for the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and a Labour Party member.
Despite being a member of the Labour Party, Steve is backing Respect in the Hartlepool by-election on 30 September—and his FBU branch has just donated £200 to the Respect campaign.
“To tell you the truth, at first I didn’t know Respect existed,” says Steve. “Now it’s starting to have an impact. There are 120 firefighters in Hartlepool who now know about Respect. Two weeks ago they didn’t.”
“Most firefighters are natural Labour voters. But they don’t want to vote Labour any more, and they’re looking for an alternative.”
Last year’s firefighters’ strike was the turning point in breaking loyalty to the Labour Party, he adds. “We hate Labour because of what they did to us. The pay dispute will not go away and nor will resentment with New Labour.
“George Galloway was still a Labour MP back then, and he was one of those MPs who stood up for the FBU. We certainly don’t owe Labour a single thing. But Respect has always backed us.”
Steve says that the meeting that voted to donate money to Respect also voted to support a Labour Party candidate in the Blaydon constituency:
“He’s very much on the left and stood up for us through thick and thin through our dispute. Wherever there are Labour candidates who support the union, we will support them. But here in Hartlepool we will support the alternative—and Respect is that alternative. We may be one of the first unions to come to that belief, but we won’t be the last. Those who pay the piper should get to call some of the tunes.”
Steve urges other union branches to help contribute to Respect’s election campaigns:
“If every trade unionist or union branch did that it would massively raise the profile of Respect,” he says.
The Hartlepool by-election was triggered when Peter Mandelson, the town’s former MP, resigned to take up a lucrative new post in Brussels as trade commissioner for the European Union.
Mandelson was “absolutely despised” among firefighters, says Steve. “He’s an example of that old saying—power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
“With New Labour you elect them red and they end up blue. They stabbed firefighters right in the heart time after time. Why should we stick with them?
“It is like in the early days when the Labour Party was born. There were those then who would have stayed with the Liberals forever.”
Derek Malcolm is a 46 year old GMB union steward in a Nissan car components factory just outside Hartlepool.
“Just look what’s happening at Jaguar in Coventry,” he says. “It’s just like Nissan up here. If Nissan sneezes, we all catch a cold. If they say speed up the line, we all have to. If they cut back, we all do.
“But New Labour won’t lift a finger to help those car workers losing their jobs.
“New Labour was just a lie to make the Labour Party electable. They’ve sold their soul to the devil of big business, and working class people can go to hell.”
“What has happened with George Galloway and the emergence of Respect has shown that people can work together and have an impact on politics,” he adds.
“It’s a very, very big step, but one we have to take together. It’s about sticking to principles and true beliefs rather than just getting elected.
“Respect unites—it’s not like the arguing and in-fighting of the past. When we gel we can be a massive force. I’m using this by-election as a dry run for the general election so that we can roll out the Respect banner.”
Derek explains how he got involved with Respect after being an active trade unionist since his childhood, but never finding a political home that suited him.
“A leaflet was put under my windscreen a couple of weeks ago. On the back there was a statement with 12 boxes. I could tick all 12 boxes, which I’ve never found with other left wing groups.
“I thought this time I had to do something, because I’m disgusted with the Labour Party and the way it’s going, the way my party and my father’s party has gone in the last few years. We have to stand up to Tony Blair and what he is doing to this country.”
‘I’m sick of Labour’s lies’
MANAL HASNAIN helped organise a 40-strong meeting for Hartlepool’s small ethnic minority population.
Speakers included Respect’s candidate John Bloom and Yvonne Ridley, who was its candidate in the recent Leicester South by-election.
“It was an excellent meeting,” says Manal. “None of the other candidates have even bothered to come and speak to us.”
Manal, a solicitor, started getting involved in politics by organising solidarity for Palestinians. She also took part in demonstrations against the war in Iraq.
“I was disillusioned with all the lies coming out of New Labour and all the cronyism. That made me get up and get involved,” she says.
Civil liberties are another key concern of Manal’s: “The draconian laws on immigration, ID cards, punishment without trial, people languishing in Belmarsh without being charged—all that worries me.
“Think about last week’s hunting protest, if they had been Muslims storming into the Commons I’m sure they would have been shot.”
Manal adds, “Look at how New Labour has misled parliament and the nation. That’s where I get sickened and revolted.”
‘I tried to shop Mandelson’
PETER MANDELSON’s sleazy track record prompted Derek Hall to call the local newspaper’s “shop a crook” phoneline and nominate Hartlepool’s former MP.
“There was a bit of hesitation, as if they might have actually agreed! Then the phone clicked,” says Derek, 50, a white collar worker with grown up children who is supporting Respect at the by-election.
“Mandelson has been on the wrong side on the two main issues locally. He never asked people about hospitals or the changes in the NHS. And on the toxic ghost ships he was against what people wanted.
“There was no reference to the people who voted for him. He’s a representative of the people, not a god. I don’t like to see the people of this town being taken advantage of, and they have been. That’s why I support Respect.
“What I really despise about Blair is that, given the Commons majority he’s had, there was a real opportunity and a proper mandate for change. But he’s only concerned about the same power thing as Thatcher.”
To help out with the Respect campaign in Hartlepool, phone 01429 224 405/6