NEW LABOUR presents itself as a party that won't be pushed around. But over the last week we have seen how it can be forced to change its tune. First the government insisted it would not be influenced at all by the firefighters' threat of strike action. Blair resorted to the same sort of language Thatcher used against the miners.
He hoped he could force the union to abandon its pay campaign. When it would not do so, he showed he was 'for turning'. John Prescott rushed into negotiations with the firefighters and government ministers fell over themselves to praise the firefighters and make conciliatory noises.
But then the union's leadership called off the first two strikes. And immediately the pressure began to build up on the government from the opposite direction. Last Monday and Tuesday the bosses' Financial Times sounded the alarm, warning of 'an overgenerous pay settlement that will trigger a set of pay claims'.
An example to low paid workers
IT WAS worried that any victory for the firefighters and control room staff would encourage millions of other public sector workers, many even worse paid than the firefighters, to press their case. While in public ministers said other lower paid groups would suffer if the firefighters won, in private they feared that the firefighters would be an example of how to get out of poverty pay.
Newspaper reports began to hint that as the immediate threat of strikes was withdrawn, the government was reverting back to the hard line. As we go to press, we do not know what the outcome is going to be. We do know, as we report on page 7, that in many fire stations people are bewildered by the union leadership and determined not to surrender what they have achieved.
And we also know that if they maintain this determination, the government can buckle again.
Stand firm around militant approach
THERE IS a lesson in this for all workers. Stand firm around a militant approach and you can make the most hard-faced government crack. Listen to pleas to be 'reasonable' and they will try to put the boot into you. There is also a lesson for anti-war protesters in Britain.
Bush and Blair have said they are ready, if necessary, to go to war alone. So why has Bush spent so much effort and made so many bribes to so many states to try to get them to back his war?
Because he and Blair know that one of the most dangerous things for any government is to wage a war without enthusiastic mass support at home. They want a fig leaf that can fool people into believing they really stand for peace.
They have not been successful in fooling most people yet. Opinion polls show a narrow majority of people in Britain against the war and widespread unease in the United States. In this situation what we do can make a real difference on both the fronts that Blair is fighting - over public sector pay and over the threat to attack Iraq.
Rebuilding winning traditions
MEETINGS TO support the firefighters and control room staff have already given a glimpse of the kind of solidarity that can beat the government. Over 80 people attended a meeting called by the Fire Brigades Union in Gloucester on Monday of this week.
On the same night several big firefighters' support meetings took place across London. The week before similar meetings took place in Bristol, Coventry and Huddersfield.
Each drew significant local trade unionists representing key groups of workers. Scores of meetings were planned across Britain and Northern Ireland this week to organise raising money, building confidence to take action on safety grounds and linking the fights of different groups of workers.
If the firefighters win before next week's planned strike, everyone who has supported them will feel stronger. If the government does not back down the firefighters will need solidarity in order to win.
So will any other group of workers the government picks on. What is at stake is bigger even than the fire-fighters' battle, crucial as that is.
There is a chance to rebuild traditions of working class solidarity and a movement that can challenge every evil this system throws up - from low pay to war.