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16 December 2002

The firefighters’ secrets of spin

Despite Gilchrist's mega-blunder, the fire dispute shows that union PR has got smarter

By Francis Beckett

The sharp-toothed young men and women who spin for Tony Blair thought the Fire Brigades Union was easy prey. The inexperienced Andy Gilchrist, with his proletarian accent and his tendency to talk like what he is – firefighter turned trade union leader – could easily be made to look un-modern. The PR battle would be over before it started.

It hasn’t worked out like that. Gilchrist knew the battle for public sympathy mattered. “It used to be said that public support doesn’t win disputes. That’s less and less true,” he says. Before he became general secretary, media relations was one of his responsibilities as a union national officer, and he realised how much he didn’t know. When the dispute is over, he’s going to make sure his union gets a professionally run media office.

For now, he is improvising. At the September Trades Union Congress in Blackpool he recruited for the duration one of the best trade union spinners in the business. It wasn’t – despite persistent rumours – Gordon Brown’s former aide Charlie Whelan. It was a 42-year-old Glaswegian, Duncan Milligan, who had handled media relations for the train drivers’ union Aslef, Unison, the Labour Party, and the trade union law firm Thompsons, and whose experience included spinning strikes by train drivers and ambulance staff.

Gilchrist needed a resounding ballot majority in favour of a strike. Downing Street briefed journalists to expect a narrow majority and a low turnout, which is every strike leader’s nightmare. When Gilchrist told a press conference that the majority for a strike was 9-1, the first question was turnout. Milligan says: “When Andy said 84 per cent, there was a moment’s absolute silence.”

Right-wing newspapers like to identify a strike with one leader they can demonise, so the union shares out broadcasting duties. Appearances on Newsnight and Today are done by the clever and reasonable-sounding national official John McGhee, who has fielded everything Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys can throw at him, partly because he gets a practice grilling from Milligan beforehand. The FBU president, Ruth Winters, does Channel 4 and Channel 5, and the national officials Mike Fordham and Geoff Ellis get Breakfast with Frost.

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Gilchrist says: “It gives the message that this isn’t the Andy Gilchrist dispute. If it were always me, then if they could beat me, the dispute would be over.”

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Milligan persuaded Gilchrist to allow television cameras to follow his tours of picket lines, and has been helpful and welcoming to television crews wishing to visit picket lines themselves. John Prescott is apparently puzzled at how the union ensures that picket line interviewees are always on-message. “We can always get my speeches to our activists electronically before I make them,” says Gilchrist. Activists also watch Sky News, which is giving the dispute minute-by-minute coverage. Dour, grinding strikers turn people off, so “our picket lines are happy, confident, colourful, noisy groups”.

When government spinners tried to brand the union as racist and sexist, the FBU ensured that the visits of television crews coincided with shifts on picket lines by female and black members.

There has been one PR blunder. On 30 November, Milligan was confined to his bed with tonsillitis, and Gilchrist went alone to a meeting of Labour Party left-wingers. He was frustrated after the government had vetoed a peace deal at the last moment, forgot Milligan’s dictum that he could not change hats and speak as a Labour Party member, and said he would like to see new Labour replaced with “what I’d be prepared to call real Labour”.

Government spinners pounced. Adam Ingram, the latest in a bewildering array of ministers put up against the firefighters, fulminated about a cynical union leader using his oh-so-brave members for his own political ends.

Gilchrist knows that t is the first open goal he has given them. It has probably run its course now – and when it comes up, Gilchrist skilfully takes the sting out of it with reasonable-sounding talk of negotiations.

He believes there will be a deal, and he is probably right. The government’s hoped-for outright victory could now only be achieved at huge political cost. Ministers claimed the deal struck between the union and the employers, and vetoed by the government, had not been properly costed. But privately they know that there are 56 different fire authorities, all with different accounting systems and shift patterns, and exact costings are almost meaningless. Soon, the figures will be spun to enable ministers to claim they have given nothing away. Whether they will do it before or after the next eight-day strike starting on 16 December remains to be seen.