Peter Oborne

This firemen’s strike is a climacteric moment for Tony Blair’s government

This firemen's strike is a climacteric moment for Tony Blair's government

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Tony Blair has been a lucky Prime Minister. Never in his first six years in office has he had to confront the co-ordinated industrial unrest which bedevilled Harold Wilson and destroyed Jim Callaghan. When he entered No. 10 in 1997, Blair found the unions in a state of cowed irrelevance: one of the many legacies of Margaret Thatcher for which the Prime Minister has never expressed gratitude.

Since 1997 the Prime Minister has set about restoring the morale of trade unionists. Many of the Thatcherite reforms have been reversed, while union leaders are now welcome in Downing Street. For the last two years the Prime Minister has enjoyed boasting, though only while in select company, that public-sector pay is now rising faster than private wages.

The strike rate has rapidly increased. In 1997, 236,000 days were lost to industrial action. The figure for the first nine months of this year alone stands at 800,000. The generation of union leaders which Tony Blair inherited in 1997 was grateful for any sniff of power. It has been replaced. The modern school are not descendants of the hard-faced, disciplined, CPGB-influenced and Moscow-funded officials who posed a genuine threat to the stability of the United Kingdom in the 1970s. Ambitious CP men from that period have gone respectable, or at any rate New Labour. Many have ended up with the government - like Labour's general secretary David Triesman or Peter Mandelson. Shortly after the 1997 general election I had lunch with Charlie Whelan, then special adviser to Gordon Brown, in the Savoy Grill. We had just ordered a second bottle of Chablis when John Reid, then defence minister, arrived at an adjacent booth and sat down next to a general. Reid waved cordially at Whelan. Whelan waved back. 'We're old mates,' the Chancellor's adviser explained. 'We was in the CP together back in the 1970s.'

A murderous hatred has always existed between mainstream Soviet communism and its numerous Trotskyite or Maoist offshoots, and this should by no means be underestimated as a factor in the looming conflict between government and the trade unions. The modern unionists supporting the coming strike hail for the most part from what in the 1970s formed the apparently less sinister, but more enjoyable, section of the militant Left. They attached themselves to the various Trotskyite sects that ineffectually plotted world revolution. Mick Rix, leader of the Aslef train drivers' union, is an interesting case in point. He was until very recently a member of Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour. Last year Nita Clarke, Downing Street's union fixer, persuaded Rix to join the Labour party. At the time, Rix's transfer of allegiance was celebrated within government like the return of the prodigal son. Now it merely causes unease.

Bob Crow of the RMT railway workers' union, who has plotted 30 strikes in the last ten years (he has one going on at present in Leeds), remains outside the fold. Paradoxically, Andrew Gilchrist, the engaging leader of the Fire Brigades Union, is a traditional Labour party supporter. His militancy has different origins from that of Crow or Rix. His FBU has always been left-wing and clannish, while the members are united above all by a common hatred of policemen. The firemen have never reconciled themselves to the fact that the police, while doing a palpably softer job these days, get higher salaries and better pensions. This is because the policemen, mainly Tories, were bought off by Thatcher in the 1980s. The firemen, solid Labour men, were not. Next week's strike is mainly about redressing this longstanding and strongly felt grievance.

But the grievance has certainly become incorporated into a wider socialist agenda. Last month's Fire Brigades Union rally in London, which set the tone for the strike, was joined by Rix, Crow and Billy Hayes of the postal workers. Gilchrist returned the compliment by attending the Aslef dinner at the TUC conference in Blackpool. There is a whiff of early 20th-century syndicalism about the way the left-wing union leaders now plot together. The use of safety issues to enable the firemen's strike to proliferate into other industries, thus surmounting the ban on secondary action, is one important result of this novel inter-union co-operation.

This is why the firemen's strike is such a threat to the authority of the government. Basically there is an argument going on in the Labour movement about who is to benefit from the tens of billions Gordon Brown is pouring into public services. The unions say that the money should go straight to their members in higher pay. The government says that the voters should benefit through better service, new hospitals and schools, etc. Surrender to the Fire Brigades Union is out of the question. This strike is a climacteric moment for New Labour, something which Tony Blair has been slow to recognise. It was just his rotten luck that local government should be one of the few areas of responsibility left to John Prescott, the lumbering Deputy Prime Minister. But it was culpable to leave Prescott to get on with the job alone, unattended except by the impeccably mannered Nick Raynsford, his Repton-educated junior minister.

David Davis, who after a period of experimentation with titles in the wake of his summer downgrading seems finally to have settled on 'shadow deputy prime minister' (a little confusing since Michael Ancram remains deputy leader of the Conservative party, but there we are), exposed the pathetic state of government preparation on Tuesday. In what was from Iain Duncan Smith's point of view slightly too good a Commons performance, Davis made the government look an ass. Prescott was flummoxed even by a comparatively trivial question about household insurance.

It is now obvious that a split has developed within the Cabinet. It is likely that John Prescott, who 35 years ago was sensationally denounced by Harold Wilson as a member of a 'tightly knit group of politically motivated men' behind the seamen's strike, has some lingering sympathy for the firemen. What is certain is that he differs sharply with Downing Street over tactics. Prescott was behind the greatly criticised decision to equip the army with 40- or, in some cases, 50-year-old Green Goddesses, maximum speed 30mph. Prescott and Raynsford are adamant that it would be wrong for the army to cross picket lines to obtain access to modern red fire engines. The message from No. 10 is sharply different, and Downing Street spokesmen have by no means ruled out use of the red fire engines.

Rather late in the day No. 10 is starting to appreciate that it must bust the strike. That means less reverence for picket lines, and more of the ruthlessness than took Rupert Murdoch to Wapping and enabled Margaret Thatcher to smash the miners. Anything less will mean compromise, and compromise means victory for the firemen. Tony Blair has one piece of luck: Gordon Brown is on his side. In this case, the Chancellor's customary enmity towards any project associated with the Prime Minister has been eclipsed by his passionate guardianship of the public purse.