The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) conference took place in Southport this week following the election of left wing candidate Matt Wrack as general secretary.
Matt Wrack beat former general secretary Andy Gilchrist by 12,833 votes to 7,259.
But, as delegates gathered, the impact of the general election weighed heavily alongside the result of the FBU’s own contest for general secretary.
“George Galloway’s victory and the successes in east London and Birmingham totally vindicate the stand taken by the London region of the union in backing Respect candidates,” said Linda Smith, treasurer of the FBU London region (pictured above centre).
“I think there is now a huge opportunity to build support for Respect among FBU members. Last year our conference took a historic decision to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. What’s happened since has shown that to be right.
“At the same time many speakers in last year’s debate made the point that we do not want to retreat from political engagement.
“The breakthrough by Respect opens up the political debate within the union. London FBU’s support for Respect and the backing from the East Anglia region did not come out of the blue.
“There was a process of discussion. Then Respect and George Galloway played a prominent role in a recent campaign against cuts. Many FBU members could see that there was an organisation that would fight for their interests.
“The regional committee’s decision to give money to Respect candidates fed back into discussion on the stations. Respect, like a strong union organisation, needs to be built from the bottom up.”
Adrian Clarke, a delegate from East Anglia, said, “Respect has established itself, above the Greens, as the fourth party in politics. Some of the results are remarkable for a first time party.
“East London and Birmingham had the big successes on election night, but the demand for an alternative to New Labour goes way beyond these areas.
“The thing I’m most proud of, and that’s most necessary, is that we took the fight to the right wing parties.
“We stood up clearly against racism when others capitulated to it. We’re going to need to stand up to the right, again and again. We now have a government that won the support of just 22 percent of the electorate. The election has exposed just how undemocratic Britain is.
“I think trade unionists need to take a look at themselves. A new political force isn’t built overnight, but we in Respect are doing it — with considerable success. Before criticising us, everyone should acknowledge that.
“There has been a lot of enthusiasm for Respect in my region. That’s something to build on — quickly — across the FBU and other unions.
“I would encourage Respect supporters to make contact with FBU members. It’s a time of change in the union and in labour movement politics.”
Respect was to hold a fringe meeting at the conference on Wednesday of this week.
The conference was also due to discuss a range of industrial issues — in the new context after the election of Matt Wrack.
His success was the latest in a series of elections for leading positions within the FBU that have seen victories for candidates who were critical of the leadership’s handling of the bitter firefighters’ pay dispute three years ago.
The scale of Matt Wrack’s victory was a sign of the mood among FBU members for a fresh direction.
It also shocked TUC officials who felt that the trend of left victories in union elections might be on the wane.
The change in leadership in the FBU goes hand in hand with the desire among activists to unify the union and get back on the front foot.
It takes place as important battles loom over pensions, public sector “reform” and cuts to the fire service under the guise of modernisation.
The conference was due to discuss resolutions authorising strike action over the attacks on pensions and the closure of emergency control rooms.
It was also to debate developing a political strategy for the union following the decision last year to disaffiliate from the Labour Party.
Paul Embury, a delegate from London, said, “Following Matt Wrack’s election the members now have a leader they want.
“This can help to give them confidence that the union will be willing and able to progress their fights.
“It is now critical that after a turbulent period, everyone comes together.
“Our members have been under the hammer for the last couple of years from the employers and the government. But the union remains intact and there is a feeling now that we need to unify and turn the tide.”
Jim Brown from Essex added, “Top of the list of issues to be addressed are pensions and the regionalisation of control rooms — that’s leaving aside all the local attacks, brigade by brigade.
“We are going to have to be in a position to take industrial action. The government is weaker. The general election saw them hit from the left. We’ve got to restore the confidence to fight among the membership of the union.”
Brown shares blame
The FBU’S president, Ruth Winters, told delegates on Tuesday, “We’ve just had a general election where there was nothing new on offer from the main parties.
“The lies and the scaremongering, particularly over asylum seekers, were sickening. They came from all sides, including the Labour Party.
“Labour has been re-elected, but on a reduced majority. The biggest cloud over the Labour Party was the Iraq war.
“They now say that they are listening to us more, but I don’t think they will.
“And will it change that much when Gordon Brown takes over? Who pushed the cuts in the civil service, who pushed 100,000 trade unionists out the door? It was Brown, with Blair’s support.
“The party is to blame, not just individuals. When it comes to the issue of pensions, do we seriously think they are now going to withdraw those plans?”