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Firefighters’ Union To Vote On Cutting Ties With The Labour Party

5 min read

Exclusive: The Labour Party’s union link is at risk of weakening further as the left-wing firefighters’ union FBU is set to vote on disaffiliation from the party at a conference this week.

The motion proposed by the Merseyside branch claims Keir Starmer’s Labour has “seemingly attempted to purge itself of socialists, actively distance itself from working men and women and sought to align itself with big business”.

The resolution concludes: “Conference is no longer convinced that the aims and objectives of the Labour Party reflect those of the FBU. With this in mind the conference demands the FBU disaffiliate from the Labour Party nationally with immediate effect.”

FBU general secretary Matt Wrack told PoliticsHome: "Any union with a healthy democracy will constantly be having debates on what the union supports and who it is affiliated to. This is no different. In the FBU executive council's view it makes sense for unions to be fighting for ideas that will make workers’ lives better inside a party rooted in worker representation. 

"But I want to be clear that we will fight for these ideas. Starmer needs to start wholeheartedly backing policies that will radically make lives better, like public ownership and a full repeal of anti-union laws, or risk losing support from many quarters."

Delegates arrived in Brighton on Tuesday for the FBU’s first in-person conference since Starmer became Labour leader. The vote is set to take place on Friday, the last day of the gathering.

The motion will be successful if a simple majority of delegates vote in favour of it. It will be done by a show of hands, unless more clarity is needed, in which case a card vote is held.

The FBU, founded in 1918, is a trade union for firefighters and emergency control room staff. It is one of the affiliated unions represented on Labour’s ruling body, the national executive committee, and a key player on the party’s left.

The union was central in pushing the ‘Socialist Green New Deal’ policy within the Labour Party and succeeded in securing a pledge by the party to work towards net zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Supporters of the fresh bid to disaffiliate from Labour say it has been motivated mainly by Keir Starmer’s decision to write an opinion piece for The Sun last year.

“It’s the leadership’s close connection with The Sun that’s really inflamed it,” a Merseyside FBU member told PoliticsHome.

“It’s that liaison with the bastion of the right-wing media who’ve called me and others scum and murderers. I was at Hillsborough so it’s very dear to me.”

Liverpool has seen organised boycotts of The Sun since its coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 97 Liverpool supporters were crushed to death due to police negligence. The Sun falsely reported that Liverpool supporters were responsible for the accident.

When Starmer wrote an article for The Sun in October on food and petrol shortages, he was met with a backlash from Merseyside Labour MPs – including front benchers Alison McGovern and Bill Esterson.

But the leadership of the FBU – including general secretary Matt Wrack, who has been critical of Starmer – is hoping that delegates will vote against the motion and choose not to cut their formal ties with Labour.

“We have criticisms, but we’re broadly supportive of the party and of the affiliation continuing,” one FBU source said.

A statement from the executive council of the union, issued ahead of the conference, reads: “The FBU has made no secret of our disagreements with the current Labour leadership over a plethora of matters including the rowing back on radical policies; the Bakers Union disaffiliation, unjust suspensions and expulsions; pandering to the rightwing media, allowing a Tory MP into the party and the removal of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn.”

It adds: “Affiliation does not mean endorsing every Labour policy but we must continue to engage in these structures if we are to give firefighters a voice in Westminster.”

The Bakers’ Union, BFAWU, chose to disaffiliate from Labour during the party’s conference in September. The small left-wing union accused Keir Starmer of waging a “factional internal war” instead of focusing on “real change”.

Starmer has a strong political ally in the UK’s largest union UNISON, but since becoming Labour leader he has been criticised by Labour’s biggest affiliate Unite and by GMB general secretary Gary Smith, as well as the smaller left-wing affiliated unions FBU, TSSA, CWU and ASLEF.

Train drivers’ union ASLEF has also threatened to disaffiliate from Labour and its own annual conference, taking place from 16 May, will consider a motion on it. The outcome is uncertain and will be determined by 80 delegates, with key ASLEF figures expecting a narrow result.

The FBU disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 2004, when delegates at a conference in Southport voted 35,105 to 14,611 to sever the link, which dated back more than 80 years. Members were unhappy about Tony Blair’s policies and the decision came after a pay dispute in which New Labour ministers had criticised striking firefighters.

The union re-affiliated to Labour in 2015, after Corbyn was elected as leader. When Starmer ran for the leadership in 2020, the union nominated Rebecca Long-Bailey for the post and praised her work on decarbonisation policies.

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