David Maddox: Sparks fly in trade union movement

The behaviour of firefighters in Dagenham last week has been described as 'shameful'. Picture: Rob McDougall
The behaviour of firefighters in Dagenham last week has been described as 'shameful'. Picture: Rob McDougall
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A RAGING fire in the East End of London on Friday may not immediately appear to have much relevance to Scotland –but the heat it has caused has intensified a blaze which is threatening to engulf politics across the UK.

The flames of discontent are being stoked up around the trade union movement which is trying to flex its political muscles again in what appears to be a return to the politics of the 1980s.

Nowhere is the heat currently more intense than in Falkirk, where the behaviour of the biggest union, Unite, not only put Scotland’s petro-chemical industry at risk but has also badly burned the reputation of the Labour Party.

However, the incident in Dagenham at the end of last week also has political significance, and with firework displays in full swing, this particular blaze quickly defined the way unions are apparently putting power and self interest before the public good.

What happened first of all was not unusual.

A scrap metal yard erupted in flames and rapidly turned into an inferno with a pillar of smoke which could be seen for miles around.

So serious was it that 120 firefighters were called to the scene to control it, yet before the fire was brought under control, 90 of the firefighters walked away to take part in a strike, leaving 30 part-timers to hold back the flames.

One fire chief described the actions of people paid to protect the public as “shameful” and there were few willing to condone the strikers’ actions outside their own union.

The Fire Brigade Union is one of the unions which disaffiliated from Labour in 2004 because they disliked the Blairite agenda for being too right-wing.

In Scotland, the Falkirk fiasco around Grangemouth, and the selection of a candidate to replace Eric Joyce, is linked to a union attempt to push Labour from the Blairite agenda and into a more left-wing position.

It is alleged that this is why Unite apparently tried to get its own candidate selected to contest Falkirk West.

Prior to that it is also why the unions, including Unite, made sure Ed Miliband beat his Blairite brother David to the party leadership in 2010.

Yet ironically, under Tony Blair the unions enjoyed some of their greatest success.

Between 1997 and 2007, the UK adopted the social chapter and a raft of EU employment legislation as well as introducing the minimum wage.

By being reasonable and taking a measured approach, the unions had successes unheard of since before the days when the unions’ use of hardline tactics allowed the Conservatives to demonise them as the enemy of the people rather than their champions.

To the delight of David Cameron and the Tories, and to the despair of the Labour Party, history now appears to be repeating itself.