Costs saved, lives lost

The deaths of four young firefighters is a tragic indictment of our unwillingness to invest in publi

The tragic deaths of four young firefighters in a blaze in a vegetable packing warehouse in Warwickshire is the biggest loss of life in a single incident for the UK fire service since the 1970s.

As Conservative Leader on the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority I vividly remember the shock at the deaths of two firefighters in 2004 in Bethnal Green after a period of over 12 years during which no London firefighter had been killed on duty.

Of course a thorough investigation needs to be conducted into the cause of the fire and the operational decisions made on the day but several features of the Warwickshire incident merit further examination.

The dead firefighters appear to be "retained" firefighters who, rather like lifeboat men, rush from their ordinary jobs to attend incidents usually in their community as and when they are needed.

Unlike many fulltime firefighters, especially those in London who often live many miles from the fire stations on which they are based, retained firefighters are often well known locally, hence the loss in the town of Alcester will be keenly felt.

Beyond metropolitan areas, the retained service provides the core response and in counties such as Devon, Dorset, Norfolk and Lincolnshire retained firefighters far outnumber their fulltime colleagues.

In the strike of 2003 the vast majority of retained firefighters, most of whom are not members of the ever-militant Fire Brigades Union, worked on, not least because they could not betray their local communities.

Their reward for this loyalty was a stubborn refusal by this government to pay them proper pensions on the small retainer and call-out fees they receive and a betrayal by the Fire Brigade Employers (a bizarre collection of male, geriatric county councillors and neanderthal old Labour and SNP politicians from Scotland) to properly recognise their union and give it proper negotiating rights at national level.

Also becoming abundantly clear from the Warwickshire incident is the failure of the building's owner to install a proper sprinkler system.

There are dozens of fires every week, which would barely qualify a fire brigade turnout if a sprinkler system, had been installed. Schools in particular are vulnerable to arson attacks and about two a week are destroyed in a fire in which a sprinkler system would have prevented major damage and allowed lessons to resume the following week.

One of the few (in fact only two) occasions when I have threatened to resign was when my own borough council wished to rebuild a primary school in my ward that had been destroyed by fire without sprinklers in order to save a few thousand pounds.

There are still stupid councillors and frankly negligent planning officers up and down the country agreeing new public buildings without sprinklers.

If there is any silver lining to this dreadful cloud over Warwickshire I hope it is proper recognition for retained firefighters and far more political pressure on fire prevention and protection in new buildings.

Sadly I suspect the fire minister, Parmjit Dhandra, the fourth minister in three years, will dust off his black tie, rush to Alcester, mouth some platitudes and invest no more money in public safety.

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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