Bonfire of beliefs

Mark Seddon

In the weeks following the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington DC, visitors to No 10 Downing Street may have spotted a hastily placed pastiche of the moment when US marines raised the stars and stripes over Iwo Jima in the closing stages of the war in the Pacific. Except that the place of the marines was instead taken by New York firefighters. The picture had been given to Tony Blair on his return from that shellshocked city, and hung over the fireplace in the lobby. It is anyone's guess where the picture of yesterday's heroes is now as the prime minister huffs and puffs over the best method to break British firefighters' picket lines.

Last spring I travelled to New York with an official from the Fire Brigades Union. He told me that pressure had been building up from the grassroots in the FBU for some time. Firefighters simply weren't prepared to put up with a pay formula that had seen them fall way down the public sector wages league. Government ministers - and certainly John Prescott, whose unwieldy department is responsible for the fire service - must also have known of the dark mood developing.

It may be that Prescott's subsequent room for manoeuvre was limited by Gordon Brown, and certainly the deputy prime minister has been infuriated by the crude attempts to caricature the FBU as "Scargillite" by Tony Blair's backroom staff - advisers whom he has attacked in the past as "teeny-boppers". But Prescott has never given any impression that he thinks the firefighters have a case, and at times - as other ministers have been wheeled out to comment on negotiations over which they have no direct knowledge - the deputy prime minister has cut a lonely, somewhat tortured figure.

It cannot be easy for a former union shop steward to wave the stick at people with whom he would identify far more than the new meritocrats who pour vitriol on them. He could have taken a swipe at the Treasury and the teeny-boppers at the same time, and then handed the whole sorry mess over to the arbitration service, Acas. But Acas is a product of different times - when Labour governments offered social contracts and social justice. Today, the market rules. Firefighters can hardly be blamed for playing that same market. The only surprise is that it has taken them so long to summon the will to do so, and that the government has acted so cack-handedly.

"Some of us will want to know why an independent inquiry has still not been launched into the private finance initiative, despite the vote at last autumn's Labour party conference to set one up."

Labour's national executive committee meets on Tuesday for what is likely to be a crisis session. Even if the government has by then reached agreement with the firefighters, the increasing dysfunction between the government, the Labour party and the trade unions is likely to weigh heavily. New Labour promised "partnership in power". Yet the partnership between the unions, which still fund it, and the shrinking and ageing party that watches impotently from the sidelines, has been thrown into stark relief by the threat to break picket lines by force, and by recent policy pronouncements that are antithetical to established Labour principles.

Support for America's willingness to wage war on Iraq, top-up university fees, foundation hospitals and a rash of authoritarian anti-crime measures have been handed down from on high - and not even the most on-message of party apparatchiks can pretend otherwise. There is precious little support for any of this from MPs, let alone party members, nor can this most populist of governments pretend that there is much enthusiasm from voters for a neo-liberal agenda, even if wrapped in the cloak of "modernisation".

Labour's NEC is supposed to oversee policy making, and on Tuesday some members will want to know how the government machine has been allowed to spin out of control. Some of us will want to know why an independent inquiry has still not been launched into the private finance initiative, despite the vote at last autumn's Labour party conference to set one up. Others will angrily demand to know why it has been left to the unlikely figure of the chief of the armed forces to pronounce an eternal trade union verity - that you don't cross picket lines.

The NEC, whose membership has a large trade union component, will be miserably failing in its duty if it doesn't begin to wrest back power from the unelected advisers and self-appointed spokesmen who make policy on the hoof and treat the rest of the Labour movement with contempt. In truth, such has been the unions' loyalty to Labour, and their fear of being painted as wreckers, that they have collectively failed to use their muscle. Now is their chance to begin to do so.

Grainy film footage exhumed from the 1970s and poisonous bile from the Sun shouldn't deter them. Not only is a large section of the press hopelessly out of kilter with public opinion, the current imbroglio bares no relation to the wildcat walkouts of the 1970s. There is no stagflation, no hint of a Labour government with a minuscule majority going down to defeat, and with the firefighters' strike there is a democratic mandate - this is not a shopfloor walkout.

That is why army chiefs warned of "grave constitutional questions" as their charges were asked to break a legal industrial dispute by a prime minister with no regard for history, loyalty or sentiment. So will John Reid, the new party chairman, who makes his debut at Tuesday's NEC, choose to act as a tribune of the party, or will he see his role as the "government's chairman"?

Next year, some of the unions will be obliged to ballot their members on whether they wish to pay into their union's political funds. The legislation is unique to Britain; it was drawn up under Margaret Thatcher and it is inexplicable that it remains on the statute book. Such is the disillusion among union members that many may confuse having a political fund with paying a political levy to the Labour party - and vote against. This would damage the interests of trade unions, which need funds for political campaigns, and of the Labour party, which desperately needs union cash to bail it out.

"Democracy" and "accountability" were the watchwords of the Labour left in the 1980s - words that a young, left-leaning barrister who was once happy to share a platform with Arthur Scargill wholeheartedly supported. That young barrister was, of course, Tony Blair. That Labour's culture of democracy and accountability has been replaced by a top-down centralism is an indictment of the Blairite "project". And if it makes for bad politics, it also makes for poor industrial relations. This dispute has revealed the schism between real Labour and the New Labour elite which now dominates the party.

Mark Seddon is editor of Tribune and a member of the British Labour's National Executive Council. This article was first published in the Guardian on 23 November 2002, and is reproduced with the author's kind permission.

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Suggested citation
Seddon, Mark, 'Bonfire of beliefs', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 8, December 2002.<>