Socialist Worker

Let’s get to work in Labour, says FBU leader Matt Wrack

Firefighters’ union leader Matt Wrack told Nick Clark the left needs to build fighting organisation in the workplace—and get stuck into the struggle to reshape the Labour Party

Issue No. 2493

Matt Wrack addressing a union rally in 2010

Matt Wrack addressing a union rally in 2010 (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Debates on the Left

Matt Wrack is the general secretary of the firefighters’ FBU union. The union voted overwhelmingly to reaffiliate to Labour last November, having been unaffiliated since 2004.

What has Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader meant for trade unions and the left?

Corbyn’s election reflected a groundswell of feeling in the Labour movement and beyond about hostility to mainstream politics.

It is the chance of a lifetime to shift politics in our direction. To shift politics in the direction of the working class and the Labour movement and to raise socialist ideas.

I don’t think we can afford to miss that opportunity.

In terms of what Corbyn has achieved, take the Trade Union Bill. I think that Labour’s opposition to it in parliamentary terms is undoubtedly a lot firmer than it would have been in any other circumstances.

The fact you’ve got a Labour leader who has unapologetically supported the unions is a breath of fresh air.

I’m not uncritically saying that Labour’s going to bring about the promised land. But it is an opportunity.

What I’m saying is that there is a struggle, and that’s where we need to be. Corbyn’s clearly under massive attack within the parliamentary party and whole areas of the Labour Party machine.

You don’t stand aside from that. You get stuck in.

What does getting stuck in mean for trade unions and others on the left who want to support Corbyn?

There has to be a debate about policy. There’s been two and a half decades of a drift towards the right in the Labour Party. One thing that jumps out at you is how far back debate in Labour has been thrown.

There has to be a debate on Labour Party democracy. It’s bizarre that there’s still people being expelled from Labour under Corbyn’s leadership.

The left in Labour needs to be organised. I’m critical of some of the dilly-dallying around the Momentum group, and some of the retreats that seem to have been made. Although I understand people need to be tactical.

The growth in Labour Party membership is pretty remarkable. Those people need to be organised. They need to know how to operate in Labour politically.

I think the left in the trade unions need to be organised politically. They need to be making demands of the trade union movement as a whole and then feeding that into the Labour Party.

If we want a Labour Party that’s more focused on workers’ issues then workers have got to make those demands within their organisations.

A debate needs to be had about what happens next on the ground. My view is that we can’t just wait until 2020 and hope that a Labour government gets elected.

The best chance of getting a Corbyn government elected is actually fighting now.

It’s been reported that people in your own local party have questioned your application to rejoin.

I believe only one person voted against. That’s what I was told by people who were at the meeting.

I don’t know where the person writing that report got his information from. I was expelled from Labour 25 years ago. That you have to go through this process after 25 years, and having led a union into affiliation, didn’t go down very well with other people on our union’s executive.

There’s no point getting rattled by that. But it shows that there are people within the Labour Party machine who clearly don’t want to see change.

What is the best way to resist the Trade Union Bill?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer—that you just click your fingers and mass resistance emerges.

The truth is the movement isn’t where it was in the early seventies in terms of membership, in terms of industrial strength, nor in terms of workplace organisation.

The left could play a real role in rebuilding workplace organisation, which to me would be the key in resisting the anti-union laws.

You need people on the ground who are able to organise campaigns, ballots, strikes, pickets, protests and so on.

The lessons of the early seventies is precisely that. The TUC may eventually call something. But if it were to do so it would probably be on the back of mass movements.

If we’re frank, we’ve got a lot of work to do there.

There are organisations—Unite the Resistance, the National Shop Stewards Network—who do good work.

Neither of them are up to what we need to do. I think that’s a real problem.

But that sort of idea, of a network of workplace organisers, is absolutely what we need.

Linking that back to Corbyn, there’s an opportunity for raising socialist ideas within that.

Every time there have been breakthroughs in workplace organisation, people with radical ideas and socialists have played key roles.

Putting socialist ideas back on the map has to be linked with a model of trade unionism that is based in the workplace rather than head offices.

Corbyn also has powerful enemies outside Labour. The experience of Syriza in Greece shows what can happen.

One of the problems with the left—and the left in the Labour party—is that people aren’t discussing these things on a wide scale.

First of all there would be the sort of institutional opposition, whether that’s from the IMF, World Bank, the Bank of England etc.

The sort of pressure that was brought on Syriza would be brought on Britain, even if Britain was outside of the EU. I think there’s a sort of naivety among people that that’s not going to happen.

Actually there’s far more serious things that could happen. We’ve already had the anonymous general in the Sunday papers making threats. A named general on a Sunday politics show criticising Corbyn. Quite sinister threats.

There’s not been a discussion in the mainstream labour movement for decades about the role of the state and what the threat is there.

We’re now getting all this exposure about blacklisting and the link to spy cops. That’s one element of it.

We’ve seen in the past in Greece or in Chile what the state ultimately can do against a radical government.

So Corbyn needs to consolidate his position. The left in the movement needs to be part of that. The left in the Labour Party needs to organise and build.

Many trade unionists see the EU as offering some protection for workers’ rights. What’s your position?

I don’t support any of the calls for withdrawal. When you cut through them all they end up being some form of nationalist opposition.

The reality is that this is going to be, by and large, a pretty nasty right wing debate mainly about migration. Anything that isn’t about challenging that won’t assist workers.

If you can turn that debate away from foreign workers taking our jobs to saying this is about bosses exploiting migrant workers—yes, to undercut domestic pay rates—then you can actually turn that debate around.

Clearly that is what layers of bosses in Britain are doing. And using unemployment and unevenness in wage rates across Europe to do that.

There could be quite a good radical campaign around that. How do you organise migrant workers?

How do you demand trade union rates of pay for people brought in on contracts by employers doing work in Britain? It could cut across some of that stuff.

The arguments that the EU institutions are what are driving neoliberalism in Britain fall down.

When you look at the history of the British government and the British state, they’ve actually initiated neoliberalism, going back to 1979 and beyond.

One big difference between the 1970s and today is that the trade unions are a lot weaker. Whether we like it or not, some of the protections that exist are based on EU legislation.

A withdrawal under a Cameron government would immediately lead to the Tory right demanding the scrapping of all these regulations.

I don’t have any illusions in the institutions of the EU or in the bureaucrats in Brussels or the European Central Bank.

But if we’re going to challenge it, it would have to be a pretty fundamental challenge to all of that. It would take a genuinely mass movement across Europe to do that.

Socialist Worker is asking a series of union leaders and others on the left how to build the fightback. Read our interviews with CWU union leader Dave Ward and PCS union leader Mark Serwotka

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.