The FBU firefighters' union voted to reaffiliate to the Labour Party at recall conference in Blackpool, today, Friday.
Their decision follows Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September. FBU general secretary Matt Wrack argued this meant Labour is the best organisation to give workers a political voice.
Speaking after the vote, Wrack told Socialist Worker, “The vote was overwhelming—it was so big we didn’t take a card vote.
“We’ve got two longstanding allies in key positions in the Labour Party. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has regularly attended and spoken at our conference.
“Our activists know him. He’s spoken at rallies so a lot of our members know him.”
He added, “They’ve both stood on picket lines. I think there’s that mood of wanting to support them.”
Wrack also said the FBU could now also play a role in supporting Corbyn against the Labour right. He said, “Probably where we differ from Socialist Worker is, I think there is a key battle in the Labour Party.
“We understand that there’s a political debate and perhaps a political battle going on—we’re ready to take part in that battle.”
But there was some opposition to reaffiliating, with Scottish delegates voting against it. And the decision to reaffiliate included not using money from Scottish and Northern Irish districts.
Others argued that it would be wrong to affiliate to Labour while Labour councils are cutting fire services.
Manchester firefighter Simon Hickman told Socialist Worker, “It’s difficult to see how a union can affiliate to a party, but only parts of it. Time will tell how that works out.”
He added, “It’s going to be difficult explaining to our members how we can be affiliated to the Labour Party while Labour councils are cutting us.
“Labour authorities have got cuts to their budgets and they’re going to pass them on. It’s up to us to take them on—industrially.”
But the majority of delegates were in favour of reaffiliating. “It’s a momentous decision made today,” said Essex delegate Ricardo. “We wrestled with this decision and ended up voting in favour of re-affiliation.”
He explained, “We made a historic decision when we broke from the Labour Party. But we’ve now got a party where there are at least two people who are taking on austerity.
“John McDonnell has said he’ll support public sector strikes.”
The vote marks the end of 11 years spent outside of Labour. The FBU disaffiliated from Labour in 2004 following a fight over pay with the New Labour government.
FBU delegates also overwhelmingly voted against reaffiliation in 2007.
The danger of reaffiliating is that campaigning for a Corbyn-led Labour government in 2020 could become a substitute for fighting back now.
But Wrack said that the FBU was still committed to building a movement against austerity—and would fight fire cuts wherever they come from.
He said, “Certainly we’re not saying that all this is about waiting until the next general election. That’s never been our position.
“We want to build a mass movement against this government now. We think the Corbyn phenomenon can help with that.
“That means demonstrations, industrial action and political action.”
Simon said he thought it was unlikely that the FBU would immediately put all of its hopes into electing a Labour government instead of fighting austerity.
But he warned that the vote could mean the FBU ends up tied to a Labour Party that doesn’t support firefighters.
He said, “The argument that was made was that we weren’t affiliating to Labour—we were affiliating to Corbyn and McDonnell.
“Some people said that if the right kick Corbyn out we could disaffiliate again. But we’ve affiliated to the Labour Party and it would take something huge for us to disaffiliate again.”