Matt Wrack: A safety match

The firefighters’ leader, Matt Wrack, talks to Caroline Crampton.

Matt Wrack was re-elected for a second term as general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in April this year. He had overcome significant challenges in his first term. After ousting Andy Gilchrist as leader in May 2005, he steered the union through the prolonged aftermath of the nationwide pay dispute of 2002-2003 (Gilchrist's settlement with the government caused widespread discontent) and, more recently, the effects of the financial crisis. But with drastic cuts to public sector spending on the way, the greatest challenges could be yet to come for him and his 40,000-odd members.

“Like most public services, 85 per cent of our budgets are people," Wrack tells me. "Fire service employers are already introducing plans to get rid of jobs. Ultimately it will mean fewer firefighters, fewer fire stations and fewer fire engines. And that's a threat to both our safety and the safety of the public."

A ballot of London's firefighters is currently under way. The decision to ballot on industrial action short of a strike was taken after negotiations over changes to shift patterns broke down. The commissioner of London Fire Brigade, Ron Dobson, announced he would terminate existing contracts if they do not agree to the reorganisation within three months. "Unless the employer withdraws this threat," Wrack says, "we will move on to a strike ballot very quickly. But disputes are really the last thing our members want, and we hope there will be a deal."

Aside from problems with working hours and travel allowances, Wrack says his members are the victims of bullying and intimidation. "All local authority employers have these very nice-sounding policies about treating people with dignity and respect at work, but you don't always get that when you're a small workforce." London firefighters have for some time been suspicious about what the Conservative chair of the city's fire authority, Brian Coleman, has planned for the service.

It is not just the looming cuts that concern the FBU, but the coalition government's broader strategy. "The message is very clear to individual fire services in England: it's up to you. The government is no longer going to be telling you what to do. It's all down to local determination." Dismissing the idea of the "big society" as "a lot of empty hot air", Wrack argues that imposing increased localism on the fire service poses serious dangers. "It's a national profession - it needs to have certain standards. If we're working together, as we do on major incidences across the UK, we need to have common procedures, training and equipment. If you fragment the fire service, you are wrecking it for the sake of political ideology."

However, Wrack says the situation is not as simple as saying "Labour good, Tories bad". "We were under attack from New Labour. Over 13 years of Labour government, we lost something like 3,000 firefighters' jobs. So-called modernisations have attacked our jobs, conditions and pensions, and more and more private-sector-style management has been introduced. For us, there was no golden age of investment in the fire service."

Indeed, in disgust, the FBU's members voted to disaffiliate the union from the Labour Party in 2004, and Wrack tells me that motions to re­affiliate have received dwindling support among members at every annual conference of the union since. Yet the need to create an effective opposition to the cuts puts renewed co-operation on the cards.

“Labour went into the election saying that there needed to be cuts - perhaps not on this scale, but nevertheless large-scale cuts. I hope we will now see some shift in the party to challenge the logic of the cuts agenda, and I think the trade unions have a key role to play in that."

As for who should lead this opposition, Wrack reveals his disappointment with the field of candidates. "We have always worked closely with those on the left of the party, and supported John McDonnell in his bid. It's extremely disappointing that he once again wasn't able to get sufficient nominations to take part in the debate. Therefore, the most logical position for us would be to back Diane Abbott."

Wrack stresses the challenge for the labour movement. "The idea that there's a new Tory party, with nice Nick Clegg, needs to exposed. We are facing a very vicious, right-wing agenda. I would like to see the building of a huge movement, led by the trade unions, which mobilises at a local and national level against the government's agenda, and we will be going to the TUC calling for the development of that sort of approach."

Despite this broader ambition, Wrack's focus remains firmly on his members. "We're the people arguing for standards and investment, and a genuinely professional, modern fire service," he says. "We have to oppose this new mantra of localism. We think it's a recipe for disaster."

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right