Over the next couple of weeks Redline will be bringing you what we consider to be interviews with some really interesting people on subjects from British firefighters and the state of the working class since the Brexit vote; US labour history; radical politics in the United States in ‘the sixties’. We start off by talking to Paul Embery, a firefighter and London regional organiser in the Fire Brigades Union. Paul was also the national organiser of Trade Unionists Against the EU. Please note that Paul’s views are his own – he isn’t speaking officially for the FBU and there are clearly some differences between himself and this blog in terms of Keynesianism, whether austerity has simply been a policy choice or a capitalist necessity and whether any Labour Party, even one which has historically (and unlike the NZ Labour Party) had a significant left, can act as vehicles for social change. At the same time, Paul tackles issues which are very relevant to the NZ situation, both in terms of firefighters and the wider working class, its fragmentation, the substantial decline of union density, the divide between public and private sectors workers and much more. It would be great if people enter into discussion on this interview around all these issues. Please do think abut saying something in the comments section attached to this article.
Philip Ferguson: A lot of us as kids wanted to be firefighters and ended up taking safer options. What made you want to be a firefighter?
Paul Embery: I was always playing sport as a kid, and wanted to do something active for a career. When I was 15, my school arranged for students to attend a Careers Convention. The London Fire Brigade had a stall there. I got talking to a couple of firefighters, and they sowed the seed.
Phil: How did you come to get involved in union activity?
Paul: I’d had an interest in trade unionism and politics since I was young. My mum worked for the GMB (one of Britain’s major unions), and my dad, a lorry driver at the time, was shop steward at his workplace. They weren’t politically active, but I have a vague memory from when I was eight of my dad, a Labour man, being angry when he woke up to discover Margaret Thatcher had been re-elected in the 1983 general election. I joined the GMB at 15 when I stacked shelves in a supermarket and was nearly sacked for trying to organise a wildcat strike! I joined the Labour party at 19. Then, when I joined the London Fire Brigade, I was posted to a fire station – Islington – with a great reputation for union activity and organisation.
Phil: How has the fire service changed during the time you’ve been in it?
Paul: I joined in 1997, and the service has changed hugely in my time. The role of the firefighter is wider than it has ever been. There is far more emphasis now on fire prevention; it’s no longer just about intervention. We are out and about in the community all the time, educating people about the risks of fire, fitting smoke alarms in homes and so on. Changing threats – such as different types of terror attacks – mean that firefighters have acquired wider skills and work with a new range of equipment. Major floodings are becoming more frequent, with firefighters always in the front line. There’s even talk of changing the term ‘firefighter’ to reflect the fact that much of our work is no longer fire-related. Longstanding national standards of fire cover – which determined response times nationwide – have been abolished, and response times are now determined by what is really a postcode lottery. Some changes have been for the better; but many for the worse.
Phil: What have been the main issues facing firefighters in Britain during that time? What are key issues right now?
Paul: The new challenges are being faced against the backdrop of the biggest cuts ever seen in the history of the British fire and rescue service, thanks to a Conservative government which has spent the last six years imposing austerity economics. Seven thousand firefighter jobs have gone, and many fire stations have closed. We’ve seen a 30% cut in government funding, which could become 50% by the end of this parliament. The government wants to place the service under the control of the police, which would take us back to the nineteenth century. I’m sure some people within government would like to privatise the service if they could get away with it.
Phil: A few years ago the government tried to interfere with the retirement/pensions conditions of existing firefighters. Could you tell us a bit about what they tried to do, what the firefighters’ response was – I understand there was a lot of strike action – and what the outcome was.
Paul: In short, the UK government imposed a new pension scheme which forces every firefighter to serve on the frontline until 60 – despite evidence showing that it is unsafe. The dispute is still live, though strike action has been temporarily suspended. The FBU is challenging the government through the courts. If firefighters in their late fifties are unable to meet the demanding fitness requirements of the role, they could be dismissed without a pension. As with all occupational pension schemes, the retirement age should be built around the demands of the job, not imposed arbitrarily. It’s a public safety issue as much as anything else. It’s part of a much broader attack on public sector pensions by the Conservative government.
Phil: A couple of things have struck me about firefighters in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. One is that they seem to have very cohesive unions. Another is that they seem to be good at fighting their own patch but also showing solidarity with other workers. I know that is definitely the case here in NZ. Why do you think this is? Is there something about the nature of firefighting and the kind of people who become firefighters that explains union cohesiveness and solidarity?
Paul: There is no doubt that the nature of firefighting lends itself to trade unionism, because it is built around those principles of solidarity, teamwork and a sense of ‘being in it together’. Those principles run from the fireground straight to the picket line. That’s why we in the FBU enjoy the kind of membership density levels that many unions could only dream of. And it’s why anyone who takes us on will always face a battle.
Phil: You were the national organiser of Trade Unionists Against the EU while the FBU adopted a Remain position at its last conference. What were the kinds of arguments put forward for Remain and what did you argue as against that?
Paul: Those on the Left who argued for Remain did so for different reasons to the political Right. But, nonetheless, the Left Remainers’ arguments were built on pessimism and despair. In many cases, they recognised that the EU was flawed, that it was a vehicle for neoliberalism and austerity, that it was fundamentally undemocratic, but they also believed, falsely in my view, that the EU was some kind of protector of workers’ rights, and they had no confidence in the ability of British workers to defend themselves against a Conservative government outside of the EU. In taking this line, they undermined the tremendous advances made by British trade unions over the years, with no help from the EU, and spread despair about our ability to protect ourselves in the future. It was ultra-cynicism posing as strategy.
Phil: How did the British union movement line up on the Brexit issue overall? What sort of impact was Trade Unionists Against the EU able to have across the union movement as a whole?
Paul: There was a significant disconnect between what the leaders of the trade union movement were saying and how rank-and-file members felt. Trade Unionists Against the EU engaged directly with these members up and down the country. We knew that many of them disagreed with their union leaderships. In the end, the referendum was won through the votes of working-class people in the post-industrial heartlands of England. These people had been treated with contempt by politicians for years. They were ordinary workers doing ordinary jobs, often for low pay. They had suffered under austerity, witnessed their communities ravaged by deindustrialisation, seen their wages and local services impacted by EU-driven mass migration, and their cries were ignored by an establishment – including, tragically, many middle-class liberal types in the Labour party – which despised them. So when that same establishment urged them to vote Remain, they saw a chance to hit back. And they took it. In a way, it was like voting for a general strike, in the sense that they knew it would cause some immediate turmoil inside the country; they acknowledged there might be some short-term risk to them personally; but they knew also that this vote was the only weapon they had, or might ever get, to force the ruling elites to sit up and recognise they existed. They did a brave thing, and we should respect and admire their courage, rather than demonise them, as some are attempting to do.
Phil: While Leave won the referendum, is the government going to respect tat democratic decision and take Britain out or will they find some way of over-riding or negating that democratic decision?
Paul: Immediately after the referendum, some groups – including many on the Left – started making absurd demands for a second referendum or even to have the vote annulled completely. They came out with the most patronising arguments: workers didn’t understand what they were voting for, MPs and not the people should have the final say, less than 50% of the entire electorate had voted Leave, and such nonsense. Pathetic arguments, all of them, and in a way they reflected the type of paternalistic arguments used over a hundred years ago to deny ordinary people the vote in the first place. More people voted Leave than have ever voted for anything in the entire history of our country. The people have spoken, and the government should get on with the business of getting us out of the EU without delay. But I’m quite sure that there will be attempts to backslide. Let’s not forget that the entire Establishment – including our new prime minister – was against a Leave vote, and these people will now be in charge of negotiating our exit. They need to be watched like hawks, because they won’t be negotiating with any enthusiasm.
Phil: In NZ, there’s like a wet blanket that smothers political life. We have a National Party government that is to the left of Labour on some economic basic issues (the Tories here are better on the retirement age and raising welfare benefits than Labour is, for instance). Thankfully, hardly any unions here are still affiliated to the Labour Party, which is just a liberal middle class pro-capitalist party. Politics in Britain, however, just seemed to get a whole lot more exciting and challenging. What do you see as the way forward for the labour movement and the left there in this new political situation? What are the priorities?
Paul: The Labour party in Britain remains the vehicle to which most ordinary workers look for political representation – but only just. In truth, there is a growing disconnect between working-class people and Labour. This was exacerbated by Labour’s enthusiasm for remaining in the EU when millions of workers were against it. The disconnect has been worsening for around 30 years, when Labour fell under the control (behind the scenes, at any rate) of people who were utterly contemptuous of working-class culture and the instinctive social conservatism and quiet patriotism of many of the party’s supporters. These people wanted to ditch the image of Labour as an avowedly working-class institution. The party had fallen into the grip of what are known in Britain as ‘metropolitan liberals’ – many of them 1960s revolutionaries whose lives are totally removed from those who live in the grittier parts of the country and do ordinary jobs. This was bad enough, but then the party abandoned any pretence of a radical and progressive economic policy and adopted neoliberal orthodoxy. Eventually, this new socially and economically liberal party found out that it was no longer in tune with the natural instincts of many of its traditional supporters in its old heartlands, many of whom still believed in the ‘faith, flag and family’ stuff. Ed Miliband (Labour leader between 2010-2015) understood this to a degree, and so does a tendency within the party called ‘Blue Labour’. But they are in a minority, both inside parliament and throughout the wider party. In reality, there is little difference between the metropolitan liberals inside the Labour party and significant elements of the Conservative party, particularly those gathered around David Cameron. This means, worryingly, that many ex-Labour voters have drifted into the arms of Ukip, a right-wing Thatcherite party which has tapped into their disaffection. Until the party recognises that it must throw absolutely everything at reconnecting with these people, the chasm will continue to exist.
Phil: The British economy still seems not to have recovered from the GFC, so I assume the ruling class are very much set on pursuing austerity. At the same time, the working class seem to have suffered quite a lot of defeats. What shape is the working class in to resist further austerity? What prospects do you see for the working class to start chalking up some victories, especially in the post-referendum situation? How do you think the FBU fits into the wider picture of working class pushback against austerity?
Paul: Things are uneven across the trade union movement. We hear occasional talk of a general strike, but it’s unlikely to happen any time soon. The British trade union movement has seen its membership figures halved since 1980. Unions simply aren’t breaking out of their comfort zone of the public sector, meaning that millions of workers in private industry are unorganised and unrepresented. The decline in trade unionism in the private sector is, in large part, a consequence of deindustrialisation. But it’s a huge problem for us. It has allowed the Conservative government to drive a wedge between public and private sector workers by claiming that public sector workers have it too good. Of course, workers in the private sector may, in the absence of trade union organisation, be susceptible to these arguments.
We need to keep hammering home the message that workers need to stay united and concentrate on leveling things up for everyone. There has been sporadic strike action against austerity in the public sector – including by firefighters – but until we organise and mobilise those who work in factories, shops, offices and call centres, we’ll be fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. We need to re-learn the lessons of the leaders of the New Unionism of the late nineteenth century, who blazed a path by reaching out to the huge untapped forces of British labour and creating something really powerful. We also need to articulate better the argument against austerity, and not just sloganise.
There is a really powerful and coherent intellectual case against austerity. Austerity is always the worst possible response to an economic crisis, because it sucks activity out of the economy and stifles growth. This central lesson was taught to us by John Maynard Keynes back in the thirties, yet it’s amazing how so many politicians – even those on the Left – have forgotten it. The current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is one of the few who understands it. It’s the only reason I voted for him in the Labour leadership election last year. In the end, austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity.
I think the twin priorities for the Labour party must be, first, to win the argument for a clear-eyed radical economic alternative that puts full employment, investment and opposition to austerity at its heart, and, second, to reconnect with a disaffected working-class that large chunks of the party have come to despise. The second objective would involve a serious rethink of the party’s approach to touchstone issues like mass immigration.
Phil: I realise there are differences between the Labour parties of NZ and Britain, notably in the sense that the British one still has closer ties to the unions and a bigger working class base, although I still think it’s an institution of the British ruling class and state, when the chips are down. I think ruling classes in the West like to have two parties and they get the workers to choose between them, knowing capitalism is safe whichever way workers vote. So everything looks democratic, when really there is very little choice in terms of existing political parties. I wonder what you think about the prospects of building an anti-capitalist left, one which uncompromisingly puts the interests of workers first – a political movement of, for and by workers. Or do you think that is not the agenda at present?
Paul: Unlike many countries in Europe, Britain has never gone fascist or communist. There are all sorts of historical reasons for our attachment to liberty, parliamentary democracy, freedom of the press, space for free enterprise and so on. I don’t see that changing any time soon (and I wouldn’t particularly want it to), so any Left of Centre government must try to achieve its aims of greater economic and social justice within those parameters. I’ve no doubt there is a huge audience for traditional democratic socialist ideas of redistribution of wealth, full employment, investment and public ownership. Those arguments could be won within established parameters by a united Labour party working alongside the trade union movement to reconnect with working-class voters in the post-industrial heartlands and beyond. But, at the moment, we are miles from achieving it. At the higher levels, the party is still too heavily influenced by the apostles of Blairism, whose social and economic liberalism did so much to alienate its traditional support. It will take a massive organisational and intellectual effort to turn it around. But, for now, the Labour party is the only vehicle we have, so there’s where the battle has to begin.
Phil: I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on the Labour Party!
And our coverage of New Zealand firefighters: Firefighters coverage on Redline
And Australia: Vicious state-media assault on Victorian firefighters