Ben Selby is a Fire Brigades Union activist in the East Midlands, representing the region on the FBU’s national Executive Council. He spoke to Sacha Ismail.
I think it’s fair to say no one in the labour movement was particularly prepared for the impact of Covid-19. It didn’t help we were licking our wounds after the general election and in the middle of a Labour leadership contest.
The impact in the fire and rescue service closely resembles the impact across the public sector, particularly in the NHS and social care, because we’ve had austerity cuts pretty much across the board. “Resilience” is at a low ebb. In the fire service crewing levels have been at a minimum since about 2012. We’ve had up to 10% of firefighters in some areas self-isolating or shielding, and the fire service doesn’t have the capacity now to absorb that, so it’s yet another example of people being made less safe by the Tories’ austerity agenda.
Into that mix add the fact that with Covid-19 the role we’re playing has actually grown. We’ve agreed some temporary additional roles – the unpleasant one being moving dead bodies, because the coroner service simply can’t cope. We’re also assisting with driving ambulances, delivering food and medicine, and various other roles. Firefighters have played an important role in the national response to this emergency and they should be applauded. As a union, we’ve fought to put in place measures and procedures to ensure safe working, but our members are still putting themselves and their families at an increased risk of infection to help others.
We’d discussed some of these additional roles before the pandemic and by and large FBU members were clear that they didn’t want to do them without additional funding and without additional pay. That was the general approach but now it’s all hands on deck, helping our communities in any way we can. Our stance hasn’t changed, but it’s parked whilst we assist.
What is striking and disappointing is that every single fire brigade’s “Integrated Risk Management Plan” included reference to pandemic flu, but it was lip service from employers and the government. The provision of resources, including frontline firefighters, simply wasn’t there. I’m not saying the FBU predicted this pandemic but at least we did raise the question of adequate resources and preparedness beforehand, doing so regularly
With hindsight certainly we as socialists probably could have predicted, in that there have been multiple pandemics sweeping the earth for years. But the key thing is that the labour movement mostly wasn’t aggressive or bold enough to stop capital having everything its own way.
What demands should the labour movement raise now?
I think in the initial weeks of this crisis the labour movement did well in wringing concessions from the government in terms of basic support to keep people going – not that the schemes are adequate. The issue is we should be pushing further.
However we need to learn broader lessons, because this won’t be the last severe crisis. We should insist on public provision and public planning. In the NHS we’ve seen a complete absence of planning, the slashing of budgets, slashing of all sorts of jobs, competition, fragmentation. That’s true across many public services. It’s admirable when a 99-year-old walks round his care home to raise money, but that’s not the answer. The NHS should not be a charity. We need to reassert the idea of genuinely free public provision, which means comprehensive provision. “Free at the point of use” is bandied around but what it means covers less and less of a service.
The crisis has highlighted across all public services what Grenfell demonstrated to so many about the fire service and fire safety. We need to run with the argument and develop clear demands for each sector.
All governments in my lifetime, including Labour governments, have promoted the market, not public provision, workers’ rights and keeping people safe. Now there’s a feeling that things can’t just be run on the basis of the market – but where are we going to take that awareness?
You’re a Labour activist. What’s your assessment of where Labour is at?
Labour’s response has been weak and it’s been apologetic. The party has not set out clear demands to protect workers, it’s allowed the government free rein and it’s lost sight of its basic role as an opposition. All its criticisms feel like a matter of detail. Labour could have made a difference by pushing for a lot more, and that is still necessary.
The lessons from Corbyn’s time as leader are complicated. For sure there’s a lesson about the need for unity; when we’re disunited we can change this and that but it’s hard to change the outlook of society and bring in genuine aspects of socialism. When we’re confronted by what amounts to a far-right government we have to work together across differences to fight back.
However I don’t think that means giving Keir Starmer a free pass. We’ve got to be critical and hold his feet to the fire if we’re going to maintain the achievements we’ve had in the last five years.
We need to go forwards, in a more radical direction, not backwards. If you take absolutely key issues like trade union rights and climate change, under Corbyn Labour moved to a much stronger position that genuinely did serve workers’ interests. However, there were limits. If you take the work we’ve done in Free Our Unions, yes, there were good policies but still great reticence about the right to strike and scrapping all the anti-union laws. Of course, that is now more relevant than ever in this crisis.
The point about Starmer is it shouldn’t be up to a new leader to change policy. That should be decided by the democratic decisions of Labour Party conference. We need to insist that the positions conference has passed are current out, hold Starmer and Rayner and the rest of the shadow cabinet to account and not let things move in the wrong direction. In fact we need to take conference more seriously.
Why do you think Starmer won?
Like my union I supported Rebecca Long-Bailey. Her record was much clearer in terms of trade unions, employment rights, climate change and other issues important to me. That isn’t necessarily to attack other candidates but what she said resonated with me far more. However, I think partly the general election was such a drumming and that had an impact on a lot of people. There was such a heavy and constant offensive that Corbyn was unelectable and I think that stuff sadly sinks in, particularly after a defeat. Then you get the superficial focus on how candidates look and come across and so on.
One positive is that members still support left policies, so we’ve got that to build on. What is absolutely key though is real discussion to popularise the policies, starting among the members, and then active campaigning for them. The 2019 manifesto was more radical than 2017, but there was little attempt to win support among the membership let alone the wider population. It was all last minute. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t defend the policies. Take free broadband, we were pilloried for that and now in this crisis the Tories are proposing a version of it!
At TUC Congress last year you moved the FBU’s amendment for public ownership of the banks and finance. Could you talk about that?
When we had the financial crisis in 2007-8 and we saw the likes of Northern Rock crash, the people impacted were the workers. Then workers got hit a second time with the austerity that paid for the bank bailout. How do we avoid workers being made to pay for this crisis and future ones? The question of the banks and who owns and controls them is still key.
Democracy is about bringing people closer to power, but what happened in 2008 and since shows that power is a million miles from workers. If we’re going to achieve socialism and real democracy, which are essential to one another, that has to include democratic control over this key section of the economy and therefore public ownership.
That will give us the resources and control to really improve people’s rights and conditions, really strengthen our public services, elevate the workers who have been on the frontline in this crisis, and get out of it in workers’ interests.
The other aspect is about climate change, and this is a point that applies internationally as well. Our response to the climate crisis would be much stronger if we had the power to make decisions about investing in the right things, in renewable energy and green jobs and infrastructure rather than fossil fuels and extreme energy.
The policy passed at the TUC without dissent, but I suspect many see it as simply too hard to campaign on. Since then that’s reinforced because we have a Tory government and many feel it’s hard to win anything. However, now when we’re taking stock is exactly the time raise this demand and win support for it. We need to get the idea out there. We need to energise and radicalise discussion about policies. We’ve got bogged down in elections in the party; we need a wider view than that. This in particular is a vital policy: we need to make labour movement support for it real and campaign in the Labour Party for them to take it up.
What’s your view on extending the Brexit transition and on Brexit more widely?
On the wider issue, I don’t like to talk in terms of Brexiteers and Remainers. There are many distinctions within both those categories, including distinctions of class and left and right. I voted and campaigned for Remain and I would have liked to see Labour lead a much stronger socialist Remain campaign. That obviously doesn’t mean I endorse everything the EU is. It’s constitution and rules function in support of capitalism and need changing radically. There are many aspects to this. I can see some of the arguments of people who voted Leave. It’s one of the problems with referendums and that binary discussion, which doesn’t allow for proper political debate or argument, and the division it’s opened up has created difficulties for our movement ever since.
Labour faced the problem that most of its members wanted to remain but in that binary discussion a narrow majority of the country wanted to leave. So you can see why the leadership hedged its bets. Ultimately it was unclear and couldn’t be explained properly to the electorate, particularly with a hostile media adding to the confusion.
What is clear is that now we absolutely must demand an extension. Not only to avoid the significant economic fallout but because people across the country will be dealing with all other kinds of fall out in their lives and their communities. We need to be concentrate on tackling that. The argument about the economy needs to be about workers’ interests, not the people at the top. We won’t necessarily remain in the EU permanently but we do need to maintain that degree of protection at least temporarily. To be clear, my union hasn’t debated this yet and I’m speaking in a purely personal capacity.
You’re on the steering group of Forward Momentum, can you say something about that?
My view of Forward Momentum starts with my view of Momentum. As a Momentum member I’ve become more and more uncomfortable with the lack of democracy and accountability in the organisation. I’ve also been critical that Momentum has lost its focus as a campaigning force which brings people together on issues, and has been focused more on being a glorified election agent for various people.
I wasn’t involved in setting up Forward Momentum but I got involved to challenge Momentum over these issues, particularly democracy. The aim of Forward Momentum is to put forward a pro-democracy slate in the National Coordinating Group elections and use that to open Momentum up. It’s a time limited project. I think the Forward Momentum candidates will win.
The response has been very strong. Momentum members are excited and energised about something that can bring the organisation closer to them and finally start to close the gap between the leadership and the membership.
What kind of democratic structures do you want to see in Momentum?
Well, it might involve an annual conference to bring people together and take decisions.
Isn’t that pretty essential?
I agree, and that is what I favour. Of course not everyone may agree. Even without a conference there are all kind of things you could do, regional meetings, debate forums, online votes and so on. However I do believe a conference is by far the most democratic option, in that you can put motions forward, disagree properly and have real debate and deliberation, which is much harder in other formats. That’s certainly how we do it in the FBU.
I’ve focused on ensuring that Forward Momentum does everything democratically, so democracy and accountability are properly built into its project from the start. In the FBU everyone who holds significant power is elected, from bottom to top, and that should be the case in Momentum too. That’s why we’ve pushed in Forward Momentum to ensure the candidates for the slate are decided democratically.
What about wider socialist policies?
Obviously everyone should be upfront about their opinions and ideas and make proposals. I hope it’s obvious from this interview that I don’t shy away from that. However Forward Momentum is a limited and time-limited campaign which will be over in June once the NCG elections are done. It’s had thousands of people sign up, with a very wide range of views and little mechanism for debate things properly. There isn’t a membership as such. I think it would be wrong for the organisation to take clear positions on a whole range of things. People have signed up primarily because of the democracy question and that is where we need to focus. But of course we should absolutely raise wider socialist politics in Momentum once it’s opened up.
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