Back in March, on the day we were supposed to Leave the European Union, there was a rally at Westminster. Emotions ran high. People had travelled to London from all corners of the UK to tell Parliamentarians how angry they felt about the extension to the departure date. The cross-party platform featured speakers across a wide political spectrum and it had one aim: to call for the referendum result to be respected.
One of the best, and most carefully listened to speeches, was the one delivered by Paul Embery, on behalf of Trade Unionists Against the EU. In it, he reiterated his position on the Brexit debate – that democracy must be defended.
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I have known Paul for a number of years: he is a firefighter and member of the National Executive of the Fire Brigade’s Union and I chaired the FBU’s Parliamentary group. I also know him as a long-standing Labour Party member; he has spoken at Labour Party conference fringe meetings for many years. He also writes compellingly for this website.
He is a socialist with deeply felt principles and an active supporter of Blue Labour — a grouping that wants to return the Party to its original roots and values of work, family and community. He is also passionately and vocally pro-Leave. At the rally when he was introduced, no mention was made of his elected office or even his membership of the FBU. He spoke in his own time and not on behalf of the FBU.
Nonetheless, shortly after the rally, Matt Wrack, the General Secretary of the FBU, issued a statement which said that it was outrageous that so-called Trade Union officials and Labour MPs attended joint rallies with Nigel Farage and others on the nationalist Right. In no uncertain terms, he stated: “They are a disgrace to the traditions of the Labour movement.”
His statement so angered me, that I immediately resigned from chairing the FBU Parliamentary group. In my resignation statement I pointed out that to imply that people such as Claire Fox and Brendan O’Neill, both of whom were at the rally and had spoken, were nationalist Right was an outrage.
Matt Wrack, undeterred, went on to make a formal complaint against Paul. This was duly investigated by the Vice-President of the FBU, Andy Noble, and Paul was suspended from the executive council. A few weeks later, at an internal disciplinary hearing, Paul was removed from his position and banned from holding office for two years. The executive council ruled that in criticising anti-Brexit Labour movement leaders during his speech, he had undermined the union’s own stance on the issue and thus acted in a way “prejudicial to the interests of the union”.
Last week, he lost his appeal by a narrow margin of just six votes out of 112.
Matt Wrack has personally led the charge against Paul. It’s odd, given that he has spent his career publicly championing freedom of speech, that he should take such a stance.
This is the same Matt Wrack who in the past has said:
“To address the huge challenges our movement faces today, we need to build a culture of debate and democracy which accepts that there will be different views and sharp difference of opinion. Democracy must include the right to express those differences.”
It is disappointing, too, given that Wrack has always argued that genuine political disagreements should never be resolved by resorting to the rule book. So why would he take against Paul in this fashion?
There has certainly been much support for Paul and his writings and tweets over the past year, who was seen as one of the only credible challengers for the position of General Secretary when it is up for re-election next year.
But Wrack’s vendetta against such a stalwart campaigner for the rights of the worker has done huge damage to the reputation of the FBU. There has been an outpouring of anger against the leadership from outraged grassroots members. One member Tweeted: “I would say it’s the union’s loss, but it’s the members that ultimately suffer when decisions like this are taken, because they no longer have people to represent them fully.”
In an unprecedented intervention, the Deputy Commissioner and Director of Operations at the London Fire Brigade, Tom George, said: “I never interfere with union affairs but occasionally it doesn’t hurt to share one’s opinion. I feel the way Paul Embery has been treated recently by his own Union is appalling and dare I say it scandalous.”
Paul’s supposed crime was to oppose the FBU’s Brexit position – but this is no longer an issue about views on the European Union. The treatment of him is not about Leave or Remain. In fact, it has united Leavers and Remainers who believe in the principles of freedom of expression and the right of everyone to hold to their personal beliefs. Paul himself has stated the conduct of the union’s leadership throughout this episode has been deeply worrying.
I spoke to Paul before I sat down to write this. He was resolute and quietly furious:
“The investigation into me by the union’s vice-president was particularly disgraceful, and worse than anything I have ever seen by any employer. It can only be described as a shameless political witch-hunt,
It deviated wildly from the original complaint about my speech at the rally, and even sought to intrude into personal areas of my life, such as demanding information relating to my private income. It amounted to a blatant dig for dirt in an effort to blacken my name. Without a shred of evidence, the vice-president accused me of misusing union funds – a grave and sinister accusation which, in the end, collapsed when it was found to be utterly baseless. It was an indication of how far some people were prepared to go in an effort to discredit me.”
Matt Wrack’s spiteful actions on behalf of the Union represent an attack on democracy itself, not just one heroic firefighter. Nor will this be the end of the matter. I am certain the majority of the union’s membership will condemn what has happened to Paul and ultimately Wrack will be answerable to them. Paul served the union proudly for 20 years; it should be ashamed of this despicable betrayal.