Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack spoke to Sacha Ismail.
How should the labour movement be responding to the Covid-19 crisis?
In terms of trade union structures, there are real challenges in re-establishing basic functioning in this situation. We’ve had to play catch up to re-establish core functioning and communication under the lockdown. Certainly in the FBU it’s taken us a couple of weeks to get on top of the basics, even things like how do you take a vote properly in an online meeting.
Nevertheless, unions need to have the political will to step up. The FBU has been very clear that our organisation – not just our head office but our officers and reps out in the country – needs to carry on working. We’re facing big industrial challenges, primarily around health and safety but also terms and conditions of service. We’re working to ensure our officials at the local level continue to engage with employers – we have no intention of just allowing them to impose conditions on us.
I welcome our members getting involved in mutual aid groups and community support work alongside other trade unionists, Labour members and others.
The labour movement needs to maintain its political independence from the government. There’s clearly a need for a massive collective effort to deal with the virus, and that is of course people’s focus, but right from the start we’ve insisted that the government’s response needs criticising.
In the first place it’s a dramatic failure of emergency planning. The possibility of a pandemic has been there on the National Risk Register for years, and yet they were totally unprepared. It’s not just a technical failure. There’s been a lot of talk about “resilience”, but the resilience of our public services and support systems has been severely undermined by hundreds of thousands of job cuts, by funding cuts, by privatisation.
Labour’s response to the crisis has not been adequate. There could have been greater dialogue with the public sector and emergency service unions. But the key thing is Labour should be clear that the majority of society has very different interests from those the Tory government represents.
There should be absolutely no question of a national unity government. We can cooperate against the pandemic, but we can’t have “unity” with the people who’ve slashed jobs, suppressed wages, stolen our pensions and undermined the essential workers who are risking so much to tackle this crisis.
All this raises very fundamental questions about society – exemplified by the fact that the workers who are getting us through this have had warm words but in reality contempt from the government. Public-sector workers who are regularly accused of being privileged, of being bloated, of having gold-plated pensions, but also hard-pressed, low-paid workers in the private sector, in retail, distribution and so on.
On issues like PPE, job security and protection of wages, union organisation is key to winning what workers need, but we are facing a government that is utterly hostile to unions and has worked consistently and aggressively to undermine them.
Right now not everyone will want to hear these criticisms, but more people will come to understand their importance.
The Tories seem fairly determined to push ahead with a hard Brexit at the end of the year, despite Covid-19. What should the labour movement say?
Self-evidently Brexit is a project led by the Tories and people to the right of the Tory party, and it’s an agenda about anti-migrant sentiment, nationalism, deregulation and a race to the bottom. There should be no hesitation in saying that. Labour should absolutely oppose every aspect of the Tories’ Brexit plans.
In terms of calling for an extension to the transition period, we need to consider carefully. The problem is that the general election strengthened the argument of those who say this is what people voted for. We saw how Johnson utilised that argument very ably. So we need to proceed carefully, and assess how the crisis develops. Things may move fast and so it may become necessary to call for an extension.
The crisis has seen groups of workers take unofficial action and win concessions. What’s your assessment of that?
The organisation the FBU uses for our balloting is in the same situation as other authorised balloting organisations, which is that it judges it can’t operate under the lockdown. So does that mean workers no longer have the right to take industrial action? We must have that right. The anti-union laws insist on postal ballots. The labour movement should be arguing this situation highlights how that is nonsense, and demanding it is changed.
In fact even if we could have functioning ballots, the issues workers are facing now, like PPE and safe working practices, are so urgent that a lengthy process of having to give notice to the employer, conduct the ballot, then give notice of strike action would be absurd. You’re talking weeks and months. If workers need to simply walk out to ensure their safety and their rights that should be completely lawful. In any case, those taking such action should be supported.
We need to demand the Labour Party backs workers who are taking action, and that it campaigns to repeal the anti-union laws.
What’s your assessment of where Labour is at after the leadership election?
Well, the result was no great surprise. The polling that came out was pretty on the ball.
If this needs saying, we should emphatically reject talk about leaving the Labour Party. There’s still a huge membership and a space to organise for workers’ interests as well as debating the wider politics of socialism.
The FBU nominated Rebecca Long-Bailey for leader and supported her campaign. We also nominated Richard Burgon for deputy leader, though we had a slightly different approach there as it was a close vote on our executive between him and Angela Rayner – whereas for Rebecca it was unanimous. However, I think there were weaknesses in her campaign. One example: I made the case for a major rally in central London with leading speakers from across the movement, but it wasn’t taken up. I think that reflects a lot of conservatism among the people who were advising Rebecca and running the campaign.
Evidently many Corbyn-supporters backed Starmer and some even became involved in his campaign. It does seem Corbyn pulled together a much broader coalition than the radical left – many of his supporters were more soft left – and Rebecca wasn’t able to hold that alliance together.
The background is a failure over the last five years to consolidate a strong left current in the Labour Party. There were also weaknesses in decisions made by the Corbyn leadership, particularly on democratic reforms like open selections for MPs. Over the years there were compromises to maintain unity in the parliamentary party, and that’s played out to the advantage of the right.
Corbyn was undermined by the relentless and unprecedented media attacks on him, which did eventually have an impact on voters’ attitude. We still to think about how we deal with such things. There is a simplistic argument that Starmer is more prime ministerial, but it’s not a given that a different leader will produce a shift back to Labour.
The polling suggests that most of those who backed Starmer support radical left policies.
Yes – Starmer’s team did put forward policies reflecting the shift to the left since 2015, and they were pushed further in that direction during the campaign. That reflects a mood among members that is very welcome.
We should not retreat at all on policy; we should fight to keep left policies and push it further. It will be interesting, when we finally have a Labour Party conference, to see how everything has played out. I think it will be harder now in that elements of the right will feel emboldened, but that doesn’t mean the left dominance at the last two or three conferences will simply and easily be reversed. The related question is, what do the left unions do? Some of the conservatism of unions on various questions – for instance open selections – was justified in terms of requests from the Leader’s Office. Does that loyalism transfer to Starmer, or will unions be more willing to push their union policy?
Certainly the FBU position is that we will continue to fight for a radical agenda, as we have on party democracy, the Green New Deal, the anti-union laws and other issues.
Coordinating campaigns around Labour policy on different issues seems like a good idea, and that should connect to the unions too.
There’s one policy that the FBU won at TUC Congress, in 2012 but also last year, which seems very significant, which is public ownership of banking and finance. Shouldn’t the left be campaigning for that now as part of how we want to see society emerge from this crisis?
At TUC Congress there were obviously a lot of people who would have disagreed with that policy but they didn’t want to argue against it. It doesn’t mean they’ll do anything to implement it. It’s not a widely-supported position on the Labour left either. It wasn’t taken up by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership or by Rebecca Long-Bailey’s campaign. I don’t think most people on the left have necessarily even thought about the idea, let alone how it connects to this crisis.
But yes, we do need to develop the argument for it and ensure it’s part of discussions about the aftermath of the crisis and how we want to go forward.
You raised the issue of building a better left in the Labour Party. What’s your attitude to Momentum, and to the new “Forward Momentum” initiative?
The FBU is still affiliated to Momentum, and we need to have a discussion with Momentum about what that means. My personal views about the lack of democracy in Momentum and the need to challenge that are well-known. Equally there are many on the left who are so fed up with Momentum that they’ve walked away. Building a left current in the Labour Party has to involve discussions with Momentum and people active in Momentum, but it also needs to be broader.
In terms of Forward Momentum, I’m happy to discuss with them and see where it goes. I’d emphasise we need a strong socialist left, not just a fluffy left.
• Re-posted, with thanks, from The Clarion