The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is a brilliant organisation, served loyally by hundreds of representatives who strive every day to improve the lot of their members and to defend the fire and rescue service against the constant threat of cuts and downgrading.
The union has a proud and illustrious history. Since 1918 — the year of its founding as the “Firemen’s Trade Union” — it has played a hugely significant role in delivering better conditions of service for the nation’s firefighters and improving public safety. It is in no small measure thanks to the FBU that firefighters have been able to enjoy decent pay and pensions, collective bargaining rights and enhanced health and safety standards, while the public has benefitted from the union’s tireless campaigning for robust fire cover provision in local communities.
The union plays a big role, too, in the wider labour movement, always punching above its weight and standing alongside other workers in the fight for a better, fairer society.
I was proud to join up as a member of the union when becoming a professional firefighter 24 years ago, and prouder still to be elected to represent my work colleagues as an official in various positions for much of the period afterwards. Trade union activity, as it does for most officials, became a major part of my life.
So when, in 2019, I lost my job with the union — at the time I served as a full-time official on its national executive — it came as a bitter blow. My great crime was to give a speech at a rally called by the non-partisan, pro-Brexit campaign group Leave Means Leave. The rally took place on 29 March of that year — the date that the UK had been scheduled to leave the EU until, controversially, the Theresa May government and Brussels agreed to a delay. Other speakers were drawn from across the political spectrum and included Kate Hoey MP, the chair of Labour Leave.
There were thousands in attendance at the rally from all walks of life and of all politics and none. Some were rank-and-file trade union members. For others, this was their first public demo.
I attended the event in my own private time (it took place on a Friday evening) and spoke in my capacity as the national organiser of Trade Unionists Against the EU, a marvellous little group of principled activists with which I have been involved for some years. There was no mention whatsoever at the rally of my role as an FBU official, nor of the union itself.
That evening, however, and without prior notice to me, the general secretary of my union — an old friend but a vociferous opponent of Brexit — issued a public statement condemning me and others from the Left who had spoken at the rally as a “disgrace to the traditions of the labour movement”. I didn’t need a crystal ball to tell me where this was heading.
Within a fortnight, I had been placed under investigation. Four weeks after that I was suspended. And within two months, I was in front of the union’s executive council defending myself against a raft of disciplinary charges — some of which were completely unrelated to my appearance at the rally but had plainly been dredged up for good measure by the senior official conducting the investigation. As a 20-year trade union official, I had represented countless members in the disciplinary arena and knew a witch-hunt when I saw one.
In working as a columnist for UnHerd, I had apparently prejudiced the interests of the union. In sharing a platform with those who would normally be considered political opponents, I had allegedly breached a union policy stipulating that FBU officials must not engage in joint campaigning with traditional opponents during the referendum (that the rally in question was taking place three years after the referendum and was therefore plainly beyond the scope of the policy seemed to cut no ice with my accusers). In publicly criticising leaders of the labour movement for their attempts to subvert the referendum result, I had again apparently acted in a way prejudicial to the union.
It was this final charge that led to my being removed from my role and banned from holding office again in the FBU for two years. I received other, though lesser, sanctions for the other “offences”.
The backlash across the FBU and media was fierce. Many people understood acutely that the sacking of a union representative for expressing a personal view in his own private time conflicted with the deep and longstanding traditions of the labour movement. Wasn’t our movement supposed to defend the principles of free speech and the right to dissent? Did we no longer tolerate the expression of alternative views? As the Labour MP Jon Cruddas argued in my defence:
“The history of the movement in Britain has always been one of debate, argument and civil disagreement. Union members have always been allowed to argue for positions contrary to their union’s own view, as long as it is made clear that they are representing themselves or another organisation. The Left’s traditional commitment to freedom of expression, and indeed the necessary right to express personal dissent, demands that union officials are not held captive to their union’s line at all hours of the day and in all situations.”
He was right, of course. But I reminded people that this was a new age, one in which a different kind of Left was increasingly imposing a rigid conformism in the public square — especially on Brexit, where things were presented as a struggle between good and evil. It seemed that my union leadership had fallen prey to this phenomenon.
My internal appeal was rejected, but I chose to fight on. In February of this year, my claim for unfair dismissal came before the employment tribunal. The case was heard over three days. The union was represented by Oliver Segal QC, one of the country’s leading employment silks. I shudder to think how much was paid out in membership contributions to secure his services. I represented myself.
Judgement was handed down on 4 August. There it was on page one: “The claimant was unfairly dismissed under the Employment Rights Act 1996.” Judge Robin Postle did not spare the union leadership’s blushes. “It would appear right from the start of the investigation process conducted by the vice-president that there was an agenda to have the claimant removed” … “The investigation looked like no more than a witch-hunt, a fishing exercise” … “The tribunal overwhelmingly felt the matter was pre-determined” … “Quite how the claimant [in writing for UnHerd] had breached that rule was a mystery to the tribunal” … The union’s argument that a policy written specifically and exclusively for the 2016 referendum was still in force three years later was “a nonsense” … “How could any fair-minded member come to a reasonable belief on the facts that the claimant had committed any form of misconduct?”
An additional argument from the union — that my claim was invalid on the grounds that I wasn’t technically an employee of the organisation — was flatly rejected.
The ruling was a bittersweet moment for me. I am of course glad that, after two years, justice has finally been served, but I remain a proud member of the FBU and retain a deep affection for the organisation. It is filled with good people driven by noble ideals. It just happens that, on this occasion, they were badly let down by a leadership which tried to muzzle a dissenting voice and, in doing so, caused an awful lot of reputational damage. So, all things considered, I’ll not be popping any champagne corks.
Instead, I shall continue, as a rank-and-file member, to use whatever influence I possess to change the FBU for the better, and to support the union’s commendable campaigns to defend public safety and improve the working lives of firefighters. It is these things that brought me into the union in the first place. And, in the end, it is these things that matter most.