By Gerry Bates
"If the Government proceeds with its threat to break the strike by outlawing industrial action or breaking picket lines, the Government will be escalating the dispute, and must expect calls for other unions to come to the aid of the FBU with sympathy action."
John MacDonnell MP
Prime Minister Tony Blair has nailed his Thatcherite colours to the mast. He will not retreat: he has staked the Government's reputation on defeating the firefighters. They will not, he insists, get more than a 4% pay rise without agreeing to "modernise". To rub it in, John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister and renegade trade unionist, has told the Commons what "modernisation" means: as many as ten or eleven thousand firefighters' jobs could go, from the existing 52,000 full-time jobs.
They are not usually so candid. They want to be sure the FBU knows that it must fight and win or else suffer a massive deterioration in the conditions firefighters had before the strikes.
Who do these people think they are? They think they are the heirs of Margaret Thatcher! In this, they are not deluded. Blair is "doing a Maggie" - trying to win a crushing victory over industrial militants, as Thatcher did with the miners in 1984-5, so as to root out the growing trade union militancy before it has properly got into its stride.
The Government is making a pre-emptive strike, using the FBU as a chopping block.
The Blairites say they are the Labour Party, albeit the New Labour Party. Blair told the TV cameras recently that this Labour government is a Labour government unlike any other Labour government! Indeed. This is not a Labour government but a Tory government. But in fact this is a Tory government vulnerable to the trade unions in ways Thatcher's party never could be.
Blair is still heavily dependent on trade union financing. The trade unions still have massive weight inside the structures of the Blairite-gutted Labour Party. True, they haven't used that weight to pursue working-class interests, or even attempted to use it. They should use it now.
The trade unions should go on the political offensive against the Blairites within their own party. The unions should set about calling a special Labour Party Conference to discuss the Government's attempt to smash up the firefighters, and its threat to use the Tory anti-union laws - in Blair's own words, "the most repressive labour legislation in Western Europe" - against trade unionists.
If the official mechanism for calling a special Labour Party Conference can't be prised from the hands of the Blairites, the unions should call such a conference in their own names. That is what the unions which founded the Labour Party did - together with a few socialist groups - when they launched the Labour Representation Committee, the start of the Labour Party, in 1900.
Even some Labour MPs would rally to such a union initiative. The alternative is to go on submitting to the Blairites - right now, to let them attempt to crush a trade union in the name of "the Labour Party".
There is a sort of parallel. In 1931, during the Great Slump, the leaders of the minority Labour Government, James Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden, and the former railworkers' leader J H Thomas, decided to cut the dole on which millions of workers depended. In thrall to the blinkered liberal market-forces economics which Blair and Brown preach, they insisted that the Budget must be balanced.
Led by men such as the TGWU's Ernest Bevin, who was no left-winger, the trade unions revolted. They split the Labour Party. The renegade leaders formed a so-called National Government, composed of their organisation, called the "National Labour Party", a section of the Liberal Party, and (the big, controlling bulk) the Tories, with MacDonald as figurehead Prime Minister.
In the election that followed, the Labour Party was reduced to one-fifth its former number of seats. It took a long time to recover. But without that split it would never have recovered. If the unions had gone along with MacDonald in cutting the dole, the labour movement's party would have eviscerated itself politically. There would have been no reforming Labour government in 1945.
For five and a half years the trade unions have gutted themselves by going along with Blair and Brown. The fear of "letting the Tories in" is preposterous when the Blairites are in every way doing the same sort of thing as the Tories did, and doing it better than the Tories were able to do it in the 1990s. The Tories are already "in".
The Blairite attempt to crush the FBU should be the signal for the trade unions to say enough is enough. Blair should be stopped from pretending he has any connection at all with the labour movement - other than that of would be murderer to victim.
Call a special Labour Party conference!