This is the second part of the interview we did with Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack in April. For the first part, see here.
Can you say something about the FBU’s work around Grenfell?
Grenfell was horrific. I’ve described it as an atrocity. 71 people died not because of war or terrorism but effectively because of a domestic fire; we have domestic fires every day in Britain. This was worse than anything since the Blitz, since the Second World War. I visited the scene, saw some of the firefighting operations; I was there the day Teresa May and Jeremy Corbyn visited actually. So for us it’s a huge issue. There’s the question about how the fire could happen. There’s the question about what’s the regime under which this could happen, what’s the housing regime, what’s the building regime, what’s the fire safety regime, what’s the regime in terms of public safety… The FBU has expressed our solidarity with the local community. We’ve tried to work very closely with the local community, and with the Justice for Grenfell campaign. We think our interests overlap with theirs, although residents may have questions they want to ask about the fire service, and they will do. But I think our interests do tie in with theirs. I’ve heard the phrase used by lots of people, including ministers, to say this needs to be a turning point, but I fear there’s going to be a huge drive to make sure this is not a turning point, and that things stay the same. We as a union are core participants in that public inquiry. We’ve got a unique experience to share in terms of what’s happening with deregulation of fire safety and deregulation of the fire service. We’ve got a unique raft of evidence about what we’ve said at every stage of that, including about previous fires involving external cladding systems. I think equally we currently can’t have great confidence in that public inquiry, and we need to build political campaigning involving unions, involving the local community, involving other communities – there’s people who live in tower blocks right across the country and they’ve got external cladding systems that have failed tests subsequently. We know other alterations have been made to flats that have compromised fire safety. One of the questions correctly asked by the public inquiry is were recommendations of previous reports and incidents learned from and applied; I think we’ve got a huge raft of evidence that in the fire safety sector of the fire service, they haven’t been. We’ve put a lot of resources into preparing for this. We’ve got over 1,000 of our members being interviewed as part of the police investigation; it’s a huge operation for us as a union to provide representation for those workers. It’s a huge operation for us to prepare for the inquiry, but also to make it public and have a debate about the system we’ve been living under in relation to fire safety for the last thirty years.
While Labour’s burgeoning, the unions have remained fairly stagnant. Why and what can we do to change it?
I think the trade union movement is probably living with the burden of a long period of major defeats, if we’re totally blunt about it, and probably hasn’t got the strategy collectively, the bulk of the movement, to turn that around, so we’re living with declining memberships, declining density levels for the movement as a whole. I’ve thought for a long time is the poor state of workplace organisation in lots of industries; so people may be members of unions but don’t have workplace organisation. Unless we rebuild that from the bottom up we’re not going to see the big shift that we want. People may vote for big, occasional setpiece strikes, but the lessons of the past decade are that we need something different from that. If we were to challenge pay policy, for example, it won’t be through one or two one day strikes. To build more than that you have to have, effectively, a shop stewards’ organisations on the ground. That’s possibly where some of the big unions, alongside loss of absolute numbers, have lost influence in that regard. I don’t think there’s enough serious discussion in the movement about issues like that, including on the left: a lot of the left sloganises about we want a strike here or strike there. The question is how do we get that and how do we sustain it and how do we win? The other strategic thing for the trade union movement is how to break into new areas in the private sector; obviously the trade union movement is predominantly a public sector phenomenon. Apart from some very well-organised sectors in the private sector, there’s clearly whole rafts where the movement hasn’t the loss of traditional industries with organisation in newer industries. That clearly needs to be thought about.
What’s your take on the debates about Labour’s positions on Brexit and free movement?
The FBU had a position of recommending opposition to a Leave vote, and that was on the basis of we didn’t think there was any advantage to be gained for workers by a Leave vote, bearing in mind a very, very critical assessment of the EU and its institutions, but we looked at who was leading that campaign and thought that on balance that would strengthen that wing of the Tory party, the people who pushed for the referendum in the first place. We as a union need to discuss that now in more detail. As for free movement, we had a debate in our conference and I put the case forcefully that the stagnation of wages was not down to migration; stagnation of wages has always been a feature in this economy we live with, it has ups and downs and when there’s downs wages get suppressed, regardless of whether you have immigration or not. Obviously blaming immigration, as a section of the left seem to do and a section of the trade union movement seem to do, making that a focus of your analysis – well, clearly migration can have some impact on wage levels, but the evidence doesn’t suggest that’s huge. You’ve got to think about the political implications of that which are utterly divisive. What we haven’t done sufficiently is taking up the logic of the people arguing that case sufficiently. We need to take it on in a lot more detail. It goes back to basic question of how the economy works, which is probably absent in a lot of debates today as well. We should oppose the attacks on free movement. That needs to be done in a dialogue with workers. Some of the critics of the position do have a point that people can come across a do-gooders. Migrants do tend to end up in the poorer communities, so how do we address that? The truth is it’s always been the same; migrants have come into the East End of London or whatever, and those have always been the poorer communities. How do turn that around? What’s missing is a positive fight for decent housing, decent resources, decent community facilities, which I think could cut across a lot of these issues if we had the movement that we need to have, which we don’t currently, but we’re trying to build.
We’ve discussed Momentum and you’re Chair of the LRC. How do you think the Labour left should organise?
It’s all a bit messy, I suppose. That’s in the nature of it… We’ve got to keep reminding ourselves that we’ve been through a period of lots and lots of defeats for the left; there’s a resurgence, so inevitably it’s going to be messy. It’s not going to be straightforward, it’s not going to be exactly how I want it. I think there should be as much cooperation as possible between different parts of the Labour left. People need to move on from arguments that individuals or individual groups may have had ten or fifteen years ago; I’m not trying to underplay the role or importance of having political clarity, but I think we need to build a culture where people can work together a lot better. The Labour left to engage in that. With Momentum, there’s that problem about accountability, for instance in terms of how slates are determined for Labour’s NEC. There needs to a debate, how do you get a consensus, how do you determine who’s on the left and so on. We can’t get away from having those discussions.
Is the FBU affiliated to Momentum now?
We’ve not taken a decision to disaffiliate from Momentum; it’s under review on our Executive Council, who have had a report of the changes that took place in Momentum and there was a lot of criticism of those, but we haven’t disaffiliated. People can come away from a faction fight a bit bruised, but probably we need to find someone to play that role.
What’s your vision of socialism? There’s surprising little discussion about policies for a Corbyn government, let alone how you could put in place something different from capitalism.
One thing that is particularly welcome about Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell is that they have used the word socialism; they’ve referred to “socialism for the 21st century” and so on, which is welcome, because it gives us the opportunity say, let’s discuss what we mean by that… Part of the retreat of the past three decades is that people have stopped talking about that or those of us who have have been in a small minority. We should try build a renaissance in the labour movement, a socialist renaissance, building on ideas that have been around a long time but with new content. Why there’s not been sufficient of discussion of it, I think there’s a number of factors. One is that the ideas have been pushed off the agenda for so long. Two is that there’s a bit of a fluffiness around the Corbyn movement, understandably, people see Jeremy as a sort of figurehead, he’s played a great role. The danger is that people simply see that this particular leader is going to sort everything out for us, when actually it’s going to take a lot more than that. It’s going to take vast movements to do that, and that’s the lesson people are going to have to learn. My take on it, again the preamble to the FBU rule book is a good starting point, we start from the point of view that whatever work we’re doing, the work may take different forms, but we are workers: we don’t own the means of production, we can’t live except by going to work for someone else, for a wage. By doing that we’re in the same positions as millions of other people in Britain, but actually hundreds millions of people across the world, who may do very different jobs in terms of the technical or physical job they do, who they work for, or what wage they get, but socially their position is identical. The wage of a labourer in Bangladesh might be a world away from a firefighter in the UK, but both of us, there’s a phrase used on a fire service training course I was on once – we’re only a month away from poverty, as soon as you stop working you get thrown onto the scrapheap, so you have to work to maintain yourself, whether that’s your house, paying your bill or so on. Recognising that: the question is then why are we in that position, when a small minority are in a very different position of actually controlling the economy and therefore its run in their interests, in the interests of profit, and that determines and shapes the whole of the world economy and also politics. The debates we’re having about public services, whether we have public services or not, all of that is shaped by that society. To me socialism is saying we should fundamentally change that. The people who do the work they should therefore control the economy, and the means by which we produce things, what we produce, how we produce it, what we produce it for – whether that’s good or services or so on… That’s a very different vision of how the world should be from what’s in existence today. Lots of people who describe themselves as socialists think it’s about raising taxes. I’m not against raising taxes; but is there a long-term aim we’re aiming for that’s different?
There seems to be a low-level revival of Stalinist politics in the Labour left. How do you view that?
It’s not really reflected in the FBU now, but historically the union had a big Communist Party influence from the 1940s onwards, and the fascinating bit is what happened in 1956. The General Secretary, the President and a number of our Executive Council members were CP members. In 1956, the entire CP membership in the union’s leadership resigned from the party in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary. The union passed resolutions in support of Hungarian workers; a fascinating thing which I suspect today’s generation of activists don’t know a lot about. I find it bizarre the people today could have illusions in those sorts of systems, with their lack of democratic rights, lack of trade union rights and so on. I don’t think those ideas can have any traction in wider society.
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