London's burning

The London fire brigade is under a grave threat, thanks to Boris Johnson.

What the Luftwaffe couldn’t achieve, Boris Johnson might. Not since the dark days of 1940 has there been such a grave threat to the London Fire Brigade. Hyperbole? No, plain reality. Brigade managers have been told by the mayor to find an eye-watering £65m of savings. Letters seeking expressions of interest in redundancy have already been sent to all operational firefighters in London, and this week it was revealed that the fire stations and engines are also under threat.

The preferred option of managers – and the one, tweaks notwithstanding, most likely to be put before fire authority politicians in November – is the closure of 17 stations, with the resultant loss of the same number of engines and 600 frontline firefighter jobs. Fire stations which have stood proudly – in places such as Westminster, Clerkenwell, Clapham and Whitechapel – for generations, protecting local communities from fire, flying bombs and terrorism, now look set to have “For Sale” signs hammered to their front doors by the mayor.

The decision to slash the brigade’s budget by so many millions is as likely to have been driven by the mayor’s economic philosophy, his support for grinding austerity measures and general antipathy to the public sector, as by such technicalities as actual risk. He has, it is true, argued that attendance times – a target of six minutes for the arrival of the first engine (increased from five in 2008) and eight for the second – will be maintained. But insofar as that claim will prove correct – and the Fire Brigades Union is sceptical that it will – attendance times are far from the only consideration when planning a co-ordinated and effective response to emergencies. The weight of the response is as critical as its speed. Ensuring that adequate back-up resources are in place to assist with developing and large-scale incidents is vital. If the situation escalates, as it so often does, firefighters need to know that more engines and crews will be forthcoming quickly. If they aren’t, those firefighters and any members of the public who might be involved have suddenly got a big problem on their hands, regardless of how quickly the initial crews arrived. 

In August, a fire, described by the brigade as the largest since the Second World War, broke out in Dagenham. At its height, 40 fire engines and 200 firefighters – around a quarter of the brigade’s capacity – were tackling it. It was the weight of response that eventually ensured the fire was brought under control safely, without injury, loss of life or widespread damage to neighbouring properties. 

Likewise, the effective actions of firefighters at the 7/7 bombings – which, ironically, were attended by crews from several of the stations on the hit list – owed as much to the numbers responding as to their alacrity in getting there.

All sorts of dangers arise from a lack of resources at incidents. Standard operating procedures, in which firefighters are relentlessly drilled, rely on minimum numbers carrying out designated jobs. A shortage of personnel and equipment would compromise the safety of those firefighters and the public they are trying to protect. Indeed, this very point was recognised by London Fire Brigade managers themselves as recently as 2010, when, in response to an Audit Commission suggestion that the brigade maintained too many fire engines, they argued that the commission had done “no work to demonstrate the particular demands which can arise if there are very large and lengthy incidents. Such incidents may be the product of terrorism or some other catastrophic event, such as a train crash, but they may also include ‘normal business’.” They concluded that “there are regular enough large incidents in London to justify the level of emergency response capacity which we hold ready each day”.

The proposed cuts, along with a disastrous experiment in privatisation which has jeopardised the renewal of the engine fleet due to commence in 2014 and the government’s desire to increase the retirement age for firefighters to 60, gives rise to the prospect that, in just a few years from now, London’s fire service will consist of aging men and women being mobilised to emergencies as part of a seriously reduced capacity of creaking and inadequate fire appliances.

In September, chief officers from six of England’s seven metropolitan brigades joined forces to warn ministers about the “potentially catastrophic impact” of fire service cuts. (The government has reduced the grant by 27 per cent, making it almost impossible for brigades to uphold the pledge made by David Cameron pre-election that there would be no frontline cuts and despite the fact that over the last decade the remit of the fire service has broadened substantially.) One voice was missing: that of London’s chief, Ron Dobson. The likely dire consequences of the proposals for the capital make it incumbent on him now to speak up. His first call should be to Boris Johnson; his second, to the prime minister.

 
Firefighters pose with Boris Johnson in better days. Photograph: Getty Images

Paul Embery is the Regional Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union in London.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change