The luckier ones. Photo: Getty
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Restart the rescue: the most important policy you've never heard of

400 people drowned this week in the Mediterranean. Here's what can be done about it.

Unnoticed and unremarked upon by the election campaign, 400 people drowned in the Mediterranean last week. They were fleeing, from Libya, from the Middle East, from Egypt, from Syria, trying to reach Europe by crossing the sea.

The journey is treacherous; most of the refugees aren’t seamen, most of the boats are rubber dinghies.  Why is it happening? The crossings aren’t new, but the death toll is.

Until November of 2014, the Italian fleet carried out search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, with the help of €30m from the European Union. The operation – called “Mare Nostrum”, or “Our Sea” after the Roman term for the Mediterranean – saved the lives of an estimated 150,000 refugees who would otherwise have drowned while making the crossing.

But the cost to the Italian government – close to €9m a month – far outstripped the European subvention, and other member states, facing pressure from anti-immigration sentiment at home, were reluctant to continue funding the scheme, including the British government. Baroness Anelay, a Conservative minister at the Foreign Office, told the House of Lords that there were concerns that continuing the rescue operation could be a “pull factor”, drawing more migrants to make the dangerous journey.

The reality is that the ships of the Italian fleet weren’t a “pull factor” of any sorts. When the scheme was brought to an end, the Guardian found that people coordinating the crossings were unaware that the rescues existed. What matters is the “push factor”; of increasing repression in Egypt, of violence in Libya, of the march of Isis in Syria. Since the cancellation of Mare Nostrum, crossings have continued unabated. The only appreciable change is the rising death toll.

The good news is that the European Commission will discuss restoring Mare Nostrum on May 27. The chances for bringing back the rescue operations are good but the stance of the next British government will be vital. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have both committed to push to restore the scheme. You can add your voice by signing the Save the Children petition here.

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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

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