[A-List] UK labour militancy & public order
michael.keaney at mbs.fi
Mon Dec 2 03:55:27 MST 2002
FBU chief: we'll destroy New Labour
Gilchrist urges all unions to join anti-Blair rally
By James Cusick and Douglas Fraser
The Sunday Herald, 1 December 2002
Andy Gilchrist, the leader of the firemen's union, declared war on New
Labour yesterday in the latest astonishing escalation of the fire dispute.
The FBU's leader delivered his venomous attack on the government only hours
after Britain's firefighters returned to their stations after eight days on
Gilchrist said he now committed to work to replace New Labour, fulfilling
the predictions delivered by Downing Street barely a month ago that
Gilchrist was working to a 'Scargillite' agenda aimed not at winning the 40%
pay demand, but at destabilising the government.
Attacking the government for finding £1bn to fight a war against Iraq but
not enough money to settle the firemen's dispute, Gilchrist suggested the
union movement should now start to debate whether to continue its historic
links with the Labour party.
The FBU leadership has called a mass rally in London on Saturday which it
hopes to turn into a multi-union demonstration against New Labour.
Replying for the government, the pensions minister Ian McCartney -- a close
Blairite -- said Gilchrist had clearly 'lost the plot' He added: 'It wasn't
the government who tabled a 40% pay claim, called people out on strike, or
tore up a 25-year pay formula.' He urged Gilchrist to abandon 'megaphone
rhetoric' and restart meaningful discussions.
But Gilchrist seems to have been given the backing to his 'call to arms
against New Labour' in a series of supportive comments from the rail union
RMT, the GMB and other leading unions. Bob Crow, leader of the RMT, said
that only a legal ban was preventing a wave of sympathy strikes engulfing
With other strikes planned for this Wednesday and a further series of
strikes lasting right up to Christmas Eve scheduled, there appears to be a
wider gulf between the two sides of the disputes than ever.
Whatever the arithmetic of the FBU pay claims, and the government's
insistence that it would shatter public sector pay stability -- costing up
to £16bn if applied across the public sector -- the battle now seems to
about ideology than money.
The government this weekend brought out a team of hard hitters to deliver
the message that compromise, modernisation and talks were the only away to
resolve the dispute. But the anger at Gilchrist's venom was evident.
Adam Ingram, the armed forces minister, said the government's position
remained clear. He was nevertheless hopeful that 'yes, there can be a
settlement -- a good settlement can still be negotiated.' But he added that
public support for the the FBU 'was dwindling quite significantly'.
In Scotland, John Swinney, the SNP leader, told his national council that
the handling of the dispute has been 'chaotic and shameful'. With ministers
describing fire fighters as greedy, wreckers, Scargillites and fascists,
Swinney said 'government by abuse' made it 'unfit for office'.
David McLetchie, the Scottish Conservative leader, demanded that any pay
deal should now include a 'no-strike' requirement on the FBU 'ensuring that
public safety is never again compromised'.
Crow and Gilchrist both spoke at a socialist rally in London yesterday. Both
leaders clearly sense an opportunity has now arrived to attempt to reverse
Tony Blair's modernisation of the Labour party. Crow said: 'Blair believes
that this is another miners' dispute. As far as he is concerned he is going
to show that he is a solid person throughout the world and a solid person in
Britain. What he doesn't understand is that he is going to lose literally
hundreds of thousands of votes the next time they [the working classes] go
to the polls.'
New Labour faces the fight of its life
Andy Gilchrist has declared war, and it's a battle neither side can afford
By James Cusick Westminster Editor
The Sunday Herald, 1 December 2002
Exactly a month ago the Prime Minister's advisers in Downing Street took the
battle with the firefighters' unions into territory many thought had gone
with Margaret Thatcher. The message from Number 10 was that the leader of
the FBU, Andy Gilchrist, was 'Scargillite' and that he was intent on taking
on the government.
The leader of the TUC, John Monks, was furious with Blair's language: 'When
he's under a bit of pressure, he reaches for the Conservative political
lexicon of the 1980s and uses these things. 'Wreckers' was another word he
used, not long ago, which gave a lot of offence and is not accurate.'
Monks tried his best to defend Gilchrist. Wasn't this a union leader who had
a huge picture on his office wall showing him smiling and shaking hands with
Blair? Wasn't this the leader who, at his union's conference last year ,
stood up -- in the middle of fairly hostile debate on political links -- to
demand that the FBU 'must maintain our relationship with the Labour Party.
The 'Scargillite' branding was seen by some as a Downing Street exercise in
media spin. But when Gilchrist yesterday called for unions to seriously
consider ending their links with the Labour government, and said he was
'quite prepared to work to replace New Labour with what I'm prepared to call
Real Labour', it was effectively a declaration of war. Not just a pay war,
but a war of ideology.
Forget Real Labour. Gilchrist wants the return of Old Labour and he wants
the trade union movement alongside him -- just like Arthur Scargill did in
After a month of attention, applause but no appeasement, Gilchrist,
according to one striking fireman standing at a brazier near the fire
station in London's Mount Pleasant: 'Andy's a working class hero and we back
Gilchrist yesterday told a meeting of the Socialist Campaign Group he was
'proud' of his members , and the 'hysterical rantings' of the government
would not stop his union's fight.
And then he attacked. It was a disgrace, he said, to say you could not find
extra money for firefighters when £1bn was being set aside 'to bomb innocent
men, women and children in Iraq in a futile attempt to bomb them into
And he attacked again.The government had 'ensured and provoked' the strike
and was 'prepared to play with people's lives'.
If there was a numerical gulf between the government and the FBU a month
ago -- that may have at one point narrowed to discussions on a 16% pay
rise -- that has now gone.
If Gilchrist -- like Scargill -- loses, he can kiss goodbye to his hero
status. If Blair loses? All the noise, mobilisation and organisation from
Downing Street last week suggests he has no intention of losing. If this is
the fight of Blair's New Labour life, the clear intention is that the party
will come out of it confident that it needn't again be asked to revisit its
past by a militant trade union leader.
However, the reality for Blair is that Gilchrist is far from being an
isolated figure. Although the latest opinion poll shows only 40% of the
public are on the side of the FBU, with 56% opposed (a drop of 15% support
from the beginning of October when the prospect of strikes first loomed) the
political might now gathering around Gilchrist is substantial.
Bob Crow, leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers' Union (RMT),
was at yesterday's socialist rally. Crow said that if there hadn't been a
union ban -- brought in by the Thatcher government -- then a wave of
sympathy strike would currently be engulfing Britain.
Derek Simpson, incoming leader of the huge Amicus-AEEU union, issued a
call-to-arms to seize Labour back from 'middle class pseudo-liberal thinkers
who exploit apathy and discourage working class people from participating so
the field is left clear for their supposedly intellectually superior middle
If you want to annoy Downing Street what more can you say? The fire strike,
whether it intended to or not, is now a rally call to say the unsayable. If
the unions are unhappy with the direction taken by the New Labour project
this is the time to get angry. And if Blair thinks he can further improve
New Labour's chances of remaining sovereign in Middle England this is a
battle he must win.
But the battle is far from a level playing field across the UK. Tam Tierney,
the regional secretary of the FBU in Scotland, said: 'The FBU office in
Glasgow is currently inundated with requests from firefighters to give out a
form that states 'I am no longer a member of the Labour Party'. We can't
print them fast enough.'
The political logic is clear enough: the FBU's Scottish members just want a
political party that supports the aims of their union -- and they no longer
see Labour as doing that.
Although the political levy from the FBU is tiny for each individual Labour
member, what if this was taken across the entire trade union movement and
added up? The unions remain the paymasters of the Labour Party. Labour, new
or otherwise, is in debt. Come the next general election, Labour will look
to the unions to first bail it out financially and then pay for the election
campaign that could give it a third term. Take away the unions from the New
Labour equation? No one has costed that yet.
Paul Kenny, the effective leader-in- waiting of the GMB, said yesterday:
'The continuing anti-union rhetoric stemming from Downing Street is
threatening the historical affiliation of the GMB to the Labour Party.'
Over the last year the GMB has cut its funding to Labour by £250,000, moving
the money into a campaign to fight private finance initiatives.
Gilchrist as a labour movement hero will now be the focus of the Downing
Street machine. One source said: 'He has taken this dispute into territory
that we expected, but hoped would be avoided. When he said yesterday,'thank
god there might be a time after New Labour' just what kind of time was he
thinking about? The return of another Conservative government?'
Downing Street seems aware of the battle ahead. John Prescott's incoherence
has been quietly sidelined in favour of a precise message, this weekend from
Ian McCartney, the pensions minister, Adam Ingram, the defence minister, and
other senior figures. It is expected that the Prime Minister will made
another televised appearance to appeal and explain just what he believes is
When the FBU marches through London next Saturday in an attempt to rally
public support, the battle lines will be clear. The FBU banner will shout
about pay, but Gilchrist, Blair and New Labour will all be in the fight of
Smouldering tensions within the Executive are at risk of igniting
By Douglas Fraser Political Editor
The Sunday Herald, 1 December 2002
The fire dispute in Scotland, all too real on the picket line, has taken on
a phoney quality round the Exec utive table and in TV studios.
One minister responsible for the fire service, Richard Simpson, has already
gone, ruthlessly dispatched by the first minister after his 'fascist
bastards' comment. He has been replaced by Hugh Henry, a son of Renfrewshire
Labour politics who learned his politics while selling Mili tant newspaper.
The strike has created a lot of tension when the Scottish Executive has a
marginal role to play in any settlement. But that has not stopped a
different dynamic of tensions building in Scotland. For Scottish Labour,
Tony Blair's gamble on this dispute is badly timed, with the election five
months away. His MSPs face pressure from the left, with Tommy Sheridan and
the Scottish Socialist Party working hard to benefit from the public support
for the firefighters.
Politically, the SSP are making maximum mischief, with a statement yesterday
offering their backing to Labour's left-wing education minister and deputy
leader, Cathy Jamieson, over her refusal to condemn the strike. Jamieson's
reluctance to follow Jack McConnell's line that the strike is 'unacceptable'
led to calls from the Scottish National Party and the Tories for her
She issued a denial yesterday of a rumour, traceable back to the SSP, that
she had been on the picket line with firefighters and that she had given
them a donation. Other left-wingers in the Cabinet, such as Malcolm Chisholm
and Margaret Curran, have not been asked to comment publicly on the strike,
but they could create more Cabinet tension once they do. Scottish
Conservative David McLetchie has called for any pay increase linked to a
no-strike agreement. 'That's what I would call 'modernisation of the fire
service',' he said.
SNP leader John Swinney was also stoking Labour tensions yesterday, saying
the handling of the dispute has been 'chaotic, shameful and an affront to
Scottish values. We are witnessing government by abuse'.
He praised the Scottish Trades Union Congress -- not usually a friend of the
SNP -- for seeking a Scottish solution, but argued that McConnell had
rejected the idea on instructions from London. STUC general secretary Bill
Spiers's idea was to get the Executive, Scottish local authorities and the
Scottish FBU leadership to thrash out a pay and reform deal, which could
then be offered to London as a model agreement for UK leadership to
The idea didn't fly, but his role reflected a need within Scottish Labour to
keep its union relationships harmonious. McConnell, a former party general
secretary, sees no advantage in alienating them. He needs them to pay his
election bills. Andy Kerr, his closest lieutenant and finance minister, is a
key link to the unions, having signed a protocol that placates them
sufficiently on private finance of public services to get Labour through the
election. The key difference with New Labour is that the Scottish version
needs to fight to its left.
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