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
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide