THREE HUNDRED people packed out a public meeting in east London last week and turned the heat on New Labour over threatened cuts to the fire service.
The meeting ended with a unanimous vote — barring London Fire Brigade top brass who were at the meeting — against the London fire authority’s proposal to axe an engine from Bethnal Green fire station.
The heartfelt support from residents and local trade unionists emboldened local firefighters, who had called the meeting, to step up the campaign against cuts, which affect swathes of inner London.
Last Tuesday’s meeting also saw the first public encounter between Respect MP George Galloway, who is standing in the Bethnal Green & Bow constituency in the general election, and New Labour incumbent Oona King.
On the strength of Galloway’s performance in opposing the cuts, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in London has asked him to speak at a meeting in south London next week over another station facing cuts. Oona King, however, managed to go from eliciting polite applause at the beginning of the meeting to getting booed at the end.
Galloway began by congratulating the firefighters on organising the meeting and the local paper for supporting it. He said, “I was, with the East London Advertiser, the first person in the campaign, in the early days.”
Turning to the representative of London Fire Brigade management, who was there to argue for the cuts, he said, “And now this is an unstoppable campaign.”
To huge applause from firefighters he added, “Why is it that whenever you see senior police officers they are calling for more resources, but senior fire managers are defending £5 million of cuts to the service?”
He rattled off the grim statistics of fire risk in Bethnal Green, the area where two firefighters from neighbouring Whitechapel station were killed in a fire in July last year.
And, endorsing the London FBU’s campaign, he called for all the cuts across the capital to be shelved.
Matt Wrack, London regional secretary of the FBU, explained how those cuts amounted to the removal of ten appliances from inner London stations, the closure of Manchester Square station and a reduction in crewing levels on a number of engines.
Attempts by Ron Dobson, the assistant commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, to justify the cuts were met with derision from the audience, who were mainly white local residents. He claimed the removal of ten engines to outer London, which had lost them in a previous round of cuts, was “not a cut”.
Galloway responded, “If I take £10 from a granny’s purse and put it in my pocket, you can’t say it’s not a cut. She’s lost £10, she’s been robbed.”
There were cheers and applause, not least from a group of pensioners.
He also pointed out that those who attacked the firefighters during their pay fight two years ago should hang their heads in shame, as the current round of cuts is a consequence of the government feeling it got away with taking on the FBU.
Oona King’s contribution was, as FBU official Paul Embury pointed out, to offer “lukewarm” support to the campaign. Her rallying cry was, “I’m not convinced the information the authority have used is accurate enough.” She refused to endorse the call by a local tube worker and RMT union safety rep to oppose all the cuts across London.
Her submission to the fire authority’s public consultation calls for “more research” over the proposal to cut an engine in Bethnal Green, rather than stating outright opposition to the scheme.
But it was in her attempts to attack George Galloway that she really fell foul of the mood of the meeting.
In response to a question from 17 year old Shirin Hirsch about how many fire engines could be bought with the £6 billion the government has spent on the war, King said, “I’m here to talk about Bethnal Green not Baghdad.”
Then in New Labour fashion she rattled off a series of government “achievements”, to groans from the audience. Those turned to boos when she claimed she listened to her constituents and that George Galloway did not.
She reinforced the impression of being wholly out of touch when she told journalists that only a quarter of the meeting were local people—the truth is that nearly everyone there lived or worked in the immediate area.
And speakers, from teachers to doctors to council housing activists to firefighters themselves, came out not only against the cuts but against their New Labour authors.
Local Respect councillor Oliur Rahman, who is standing in the neighbouring constituency, got one of the best receptions of the night when he explained how he had supported the firefighters’ campaign from the beginning. He also pointed out that not one of the 34 Labour councillors in Tower Hamlets could be bothered to turn up to the meeting.