Issue 269 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
Tony Blair's speeches on the firefighters could have been written by the Sun. We are witnessing a Labour government talking the language of Thatcherism and preparing to break the strike of a union whose members fund the Labour Party. The government talks of the loss of thousands of firefighters' jobs, not a penny extra for the pay claim and a humiliating defeat of the FBU. Blair proclaimed that 'no government on earth could afford the pay demands'. Yet every concession by the FBU leadership has been met with intransigence and insults from the other side.
Blair has decided to make this dispute a defining moment in the history of New Labour. Just as Thatcher took on the miners in the 1980s to teach other workers a lesson, so Blair is determined to do the same with the FBU.
But that was then--this is now. There are a number of important factors in the firefighters' favour. The government cannot afford a long strike. War with Iraq looms within a month or two and Blair cannot fight on both fronts. Economic crisis is on the horizon, with Gordon Brown going into the red with public finances--not something he can blame on the firefighters. The political atmosphere has also changed. In the 1980s, Thatcher had already taken on and defeated sections of workers before she took on the miners. The ideological message was of individualism, pro-privatisation and anti-union. Blair has had little success in trying to repeat this message.
There is widespread support for the firefighters and other strikers, a feeling of solidarity which goes very deep among large sections of the working class. If anything this has increased as the strike has escalated. In part this is because for years we have suffered cuts in our schools, hospitals and public spending which have led to a real deterioration in living standards. But also over the last year we have seen the growth of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movement that has involved hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. As the movement has grown, and as anger against the free market, war and recession that New Labour has come to represent has increased, a feeling has developed that we no longer have to accept things the way they are. For many the firefighters' dispute marks the beginning of a wider battle to come.
Never has the slogan 'Turn anger into action' been more relevant. As a matter of urgency the trade union leaders must call for and organise solidarity for the firefighters to ensure they don't fight alone and that the momentum of the dispute is not lost. Already we have seen impressive acts of support, from the tens of thousands who have signed the firefighters' petitions and given large sums of money, to the solidarity action from other workers, such as tube drivers who refused to drive their trains and reduced the service to a virtual standstill. On top of this is the strike action by other groups of workers, such as London teachers and local government workers who, like the firefighters, are struggling to make ends meet and are having to fight for better pay.
Blair has made his priorities clear. He will not tax the rich and the big companies--an act which overnight would fund our public services adequately. He will not transfer money for war over to welfare spending. He refuses any democratic scrutiny in parliament and then demonises those who take action in order to defend democratic demands. We have to ensure that he understands he has taken on not just one group of workers but the whole of the working class movement, and that we will do everything possible to defeat him.