THE Scottish Socialist Party is forging strong financial and political links with the Fire Brigades Union, a relationship which has fuelled the union’s increasingly militant approach to its dispute over pay and conditions, The Scotsman has learnt.
Many members of the firefighters’ union have severed their links with the Labour Party and transferred their allegiance to the SSP since the dispute started, pushing the FBU to the Left and escalating the conflict with the government.
The relationship is particularly strong at the top of the union.
Roddy Robertson, the chairman of the FBU in Scotland, is an active SSP member; John MacDonald, the FBU’s Scottish representative on the union’s national executive, liaises closely with Tommy Sheridan, the SSP leader, on a regular basis to plan campaigns; and Linda Shanahan, the secretary of the Fife FBU, joined the party recently.
Hugh Kerr, the SSP’s press spokesman, claimed between 40 and 50 FBU members had joined the party since the strike began, and many more had deliberately cancelled the individual levy paid by union members to the Labour Party, diverting the money to the SSP instead.
Public support for the strike dipped significantly at the start of December, when Andy Gilchrist, the FBU leader, told a socialist rally he would do everything he could to overthrow the Labour government.
That development delighted ministers because they were able to portray the FBU and Mr Gilchrist as the new Scargillites - hard-left militants more concerned with overthrowing the democratically elected government than securing a good deal for their members.
A Labour Party spokesman said yesterday: "We have no evidence that Labour members are joining the SSP. On the contrary, our members are becoming more supportive as the election approaches."
But privately, Labour politicians will seize on the revelation that the FBU has continued to strengthen its links with far-left parties as further evidence of the union’s hidden agenda.
The FBU is just one of a number of unions to have moved closer to the SSP, and some senior union leaders will be joining Mr Sheridan during the election campaign in a direct challenge to the Labour-led Executive and the Westminster government.
The Rail Maritime and Transport Union has taken out adverts in the Scottish Socialist Voice; the only way it can help fund the SSP without breaking its own rules. Bob Crow, the RMT’s general secretary, will also be speaking at SSP rallies during the election.
Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the left-leaning Public and Commercial Services Union, has agreed to speak on behalf of the SSP during this year’s campaign.
The FBU is still affiliated officially to the Labour Party but this long-standing link is expected to be broken at the union’s annual conference this summer.
The RMT is expected to go down the same route, changing the rules to allow it to fund other parties - a move which could provide a major financial boost to the SSP.
Jock Munro, the pay campaign co-ordinator for the FBU in Scotland, said the union could not advise its members to support any other party than Labour in this year’s elections because it would immediately by disaffiliated by Labour if it did so.
However, he added: "I do not think we will be saying anything this time.
"There are many of our members who feel so strongly they are willing to stand [against Labour] in the election."
THE government appeared to have brokered a partial breakthrough in the ten-week fire dispute last night when the Fire Brigades Union agreed not to hold any more strikes until new talks were given the chance to succeed.
The union’s executive met for more than six hours yesterday to hear from Andy Gilchrist, the general secretary, details of the talks he held earlier this week with John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and the local authority employers.
Mr Gilchrist said the meeting with Mr Prescott was the "first constructive intervention" from the government since the dispute started five months ago.
Talks are expected to resume at the conciliation service ACAS early next week.
Mr Gilchrist said: "We welcome the first constructive intervention from the government. It was most useful and helpful and we believe it will enable substantive and constructive negotiations to begin.
"The union’s executive has unanimously agreed not to set further dates for strike action at this stage. I am sure the union, as well as members of the public, will welcome the return to common sense."
Mr Gilchrist said Mr Prescott had set out a framework under which negotiations could go ahead.
Further contact will be made between the union and the employers before talks resume next Monday.
Mr Prescott’s office published a statement emphasising the Deputy Prime Minister’s "strong commitment" to a negotiated settlement to end the long-running dispute, and his wish for negotiations to be resumed as soon as possible.