As the election approaches, firefighters should bear in mind which politicians are responsible for the parlous state of the fire service and the cuts to their pay and which politicians opposed these policies, says Matt Wrack, general secretary
London firefighters know all too well that, behind Boris Johnson’s headline-grabbing buffoonery and hate-mongering, he is driven by a brutal ideology, hell-bent on clawing back the state, even at the expense of public safety.
As Mayor of London, Johnson pushed through the biggest cuts in the London Fire Brigade’s history, closing fire stations and axing firefighter jobs, leading to a deadly increase in response times. At a time when overall fires fell, fatalities increased. In one case, a 60-year old man died in a fire just minutes away from Downham fire station, closed by Johnson two years earlier.
The impact could still be felt on the night of the Grenfell Tower fire, when it took 38 minutes for an aerial appliance to arrive. Johnson’s cuts removed them from the pre-determined attendance for high-rise buildings.
Now, as Prime Minister, he has led this country into crisis after crisis and an election upon us. In this election, it’s crucial that the impact of nine years of Tory austerity and decades of neoliberal policies before it are not overlooked.
Austerity has ravaged public service, leaving them desperately underfunded and facing privatisation. The fire and rescue service is hanging by a thread, with overstretched and under-resourced crews struggling to keep the public safe.
A decade of pay restraint has made every firefighter in the UK worse off. Real-terms pay has dropped by more than £4,000 since 2008. Make no mistake – while employers deserve their share of the blame for this, it is the Tory government in Westminster that has refused to fund a pay-rise for firefighters.
They will not provide for even the most basic provisions needed to properly keep the public safe. Firefighter numbers have been slashed by over 11,000 since the Tory-Liberal-Democrat coalition government took office in 2010; overall spending on UK fire and rescue services has been cut by 38% in cash terms between 2005.
The Tories have repeatedly made dubious claims that “austerity is over”. While minor funding increases, wholly insufficient to make up for years of cuts, are announced for other public services, the fire and rescue service did not even get a mention in the Chancellor’s autumn spending review. It’s clear that there will be no more money for firefighters under any Tory government.
But the rhetoric declaring an “end to austerity” proves one thing – the brutal cuts which have scarred this country were a political choice, not an economic necessity. It was driven by an ideology – neoliberalism – that is the beating heart of not just the Conservative Party, but also the Liberal Democrats.
We should not forget that the Liberal Democrats, now home to many of the Conservative MPs who architected the austerity project, are just as complicit in creating the current dire situation for firefighters as the Tories.
It was their coalition government that waged war on firefighter pensions, forcing many of us to work to the age of 60 – a move that was evidentially dangerous in a physically-demanding environment like the fire and rescue service.
Indeed, the Court of the Appeal has ruled that some of their attacks on our pensions are illegal – a fact that will resonate with the current Prime Minister, given his own disregard for the law.
In 2014, the FBU produced a bulletin updating our members on the fight against the Tory and Lib-Dem pension attacks. While we were not, at that time, affiliated to the Labour party, it was Labour MPs who fought for us in Parliament, with John McDonnell, now Shadow Chancellor, leading the charge, backed by their then-leader Ed Miliband.
That bulletin contained a Roll of Shame for the Liberal Democrat MPs who signed an Early Day Motion supporting our pension battle, but ultimately voted in favour of the great pension robbery.
Their leader, Jo Swinson, may now be touting her so-called progressive credentials, but she was an integral part of the government that made some firefighters poorer in retirement. Now her party has launched a manifesto that does not contain a single mention of the fire and rescue service.
Those of us involved in the national strikes in the early 2000s will remember that it was Tony Blair’s New Labour government who dismantled much of this country’s fire and rescue infrastructure and refused to cede to pay demands.
In those dark days, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnel remained our closest allies in Parliament, standing up to the Blair government on behalf of firefighters. It was the now Labour Leader and Shadow Chancellor who founded the FBU’s parliamentary group in 2005. They have transformed the Labour Party and we, as an affiliated union, have helped lead that transformation.
When the country goes to the polls on 12 December, firefighters must not forget who is responsible for the destruction of their service and the decimation of their pay. And we should remember who our friends have been in each of our battles in recent years.
Only a Labour government will properly fund the fire and rescue service, increase firefighter numbers, and give us the pay rise we have long-deserved. Moreover, it would deliver a shift in power away from wealthy elites and towards workers.
The Tories and Liberal Democrats have left the country and its fire safety infrastructure in tatters. We must remove them from power.