In the firing line

New Labour's plans to modernise the fire service seem to be more about promoting PC than providing a public service.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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The UK firefighters’ dispute rumbles on, becoming more and more confused.

Are the strikes dangerous and ‘deeply irresponsible’, as prime minister Tony Blair would have it (1), or are they aimed at keeping society safe in the long term, by looking after firefighters properly? Are firefighters demanding a 40 percent pay increase, or are they really looking for something more like the 16 percent apparently considered in the summer, but rejected by the government?

Has the army been told to drive the red fire-engines available and cross picket lines to requisition others, and if so, would it do it? Are the firefighters really on strike, or are they breaking their own pickets in emergency cases? And what has any of this to do with the Tube drivers?

As the dispute continues to raise perplexing questions, one thing becomes clear. However valid the firefighters’ demands might be, and however hard they fight, their battle is thwarted by the political circumstances in which it takes place. It is hard to imagine any side emerging victorious.

At the heart of the firefighters’ demands is the call for more pay. This seems reasonable enough – and if the tooting horns of car drivers passing picket lines are anything to go by, the notion that firefighters deserve a higher rate of pay has gained a fair amount of support. But as the government’s initial response makes clear, there’s no such thing as a straightforward pay-rise these days. As with any public sector dispute, discussions about wage packets are always linked with thoroughgoing demands for ‘modernisation’.

If modernisation means training the fire service to use modern equipment, fair enough. But for the Bain report on the future of the fire service, the interim findings of which were published on 11 November, ‘modernisation’ has little to do with technology, and a great deal to do with politics and culture (2). The message is clear: we’ll give you no money unless you change your attitudes (and even if you do, we won’t give you very much). No wonder the Fire Brigades Union rejected the offer out of hand.

The Bain report proposes to give firefighters a four percent pay-rise (which they were originally offered anyway), followed by an extra seven percent if they get on the road to reform. ‘Pay linked directly to reform will unlock the individual’s potential and give them the opportunity to demonstrate what they can offer’, states the press release (3). ‘There will be new and exciting career paths, more suited to personal aspirations and circumstances, which enable the individual to take control of their own circumstances and develop in ways which suit them and their families.’

Forgive me if I’ve missed something – but I didn’t think the firefighters were striking for better career enhancement opportunities and family-friendly policies. I thought they wanted more money. These measures might be posed in terms of benefits for the individual, but they are motivated by the government’s desire for a cultural change across the public services – no matter what kind of jobs those services might do.

The government wants a service that operates less like the army, and more like the local council; that appears less as a collective of tough white men and more like a diverse expression of society as a whole. So, the linking of pay to reform should be coupled with: ‘greater respect for personal and cultural differences, a more diverse mixture of people employed by the Fire Service, on a range of family-friendly and flexible working patterns.’ (4)

The press release continues: ‘And, over time, as everyone develops their own careers and skills and embraces change, the higher performance which results will bring higher salaries.’ (5)

From the point of view of running a fire service, these proposals are quite bizarre. If you are stuck in a burning building, you do not want to be rescued by a diverse mixture of people of all strengths and sizes – you want somebody tall and strong enough to get you out of there. You don’t want a fire engine full of people respecting each other’s differences – you want them to work as one to tackle the situation. And the self-sacrifice of the New York firefighters on 11 September serves as a potent reminder that the fire service, at its best, is not just a job done by individuals all trying to scale their personal career ladder.

So why would the government embark on a strategy aimed at reforming away everything that makes the fire service work? Possibly because, as with other recent public sector reforms, the government’s interest is less in making the service work as a service than in promoting a broader political agenda.

For the Blair administration, every professional priority – teaching children, policing neighbourhoods, fighting wars, fighting crimes – is subsumed under the overarching priority of bringing institutional cultures in line with the values of New Britain. And if what it takes to fight a fire is an insensitive, male-dominated, collective-spirit culture, then fighting fires will just have to move down the list of priorities.

As such, the firefighters’ dispute is a stark illustration of the distance between New Labour ideology and the reality of providing a public service like, well, firefighting. The fact that the government cannot even organise a practical response to a firefighters’ strike, wavering between Green Goddesses and red engines, and overplaying the public safety implications of a strike while finding itself incapable of instructing the army to cross picket lines and seize engines, indicates that its knowledge of what it takes to fight a fire is limited, at best. And with all this confusion, the outcome of the strikes is unlikely to prove satisfactory for either side.

The firefighters, who want a decent wage for doing their job, may well end up with a slightly better wage for wasting a whole load of time and energy on learning how to be polite to one another. The government, which cannot understand why a fireman might prefer shift work and four days’ free time to getting home in time for the kids’ bedtime story, may well find their attempts to turn the fire service into an inclusive community outreach project continually frustrating and frustrated.

And the unions, which, having rejected the Bain report, now seem to be modifying their demands to the tune of a bit more money and a bit of modernisation, will continue to shape their demands according to the political climate they are operating within. Which, it has to be said, makes things even worse.

As I argued previously on spiked, the political currency of the firefighters’ dispute has, right from the start, been arguments about health and safety (see Damp squib). What would once have been an issue of class politics is, in the current circumstances, transformed into a circular row around the depoliticsed issues of risk and health. The firefighters have played on their lifesaving role to argue for more money – ‘Because we’re worth it’ – while the government has played on the dangerous consequences of a strike to bolster its arguments against any action.

Meanwhile, others with an axe to grind pile in there, bleating ‘health and safety’ concerns to boost their own causes – leading to a public sense of crisis, where nobody seems to know what is going on, or why. Some Underground stations shut because there are lifts, some lines shut because the train drivers refused to work, citing health and safety reasons – but it’s not all of the drivers, so it doesn’t seem like industrial action, just a confusing inconvenience.

Whatever commentators try to make of it, this isn’t 1977. It’s a dispute for our times.

Read on:

Damp squib, by Jennie Bristow

When strikes were strikes, by Dave Hallsworth

Leaving the left behind, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

(1) PM comments on firefighters’ strike,

(2) Independent Review of the Fire Service, 11 November 2002

(3) Independent Review of the Fire Service, 11 November 2002

(4) Independent Review of the Fire Service, 11 November 2002

(5) Independent Review of the Fire Service, 11 November 2002

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Topics Politics


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