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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 September, 2003, 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK
Listen or pay the price, Labour warned
By Ben Davies
BBC News Online politics staff at the TUC in Brighton

The Labour government has lost its way and must start listening to working people or pay a tough electoral price, a leading trade unionist has said.

In an interview with BBC News Online, FBU leader Andy Gilchrist also hinted that a failure to act on workers' concerns could lead to his union disaffiliating from Labour.

He said that Chancellor Gordon Brown - who is in Brighton on Tuesday to deliver a speech to the TUC - was "well capable" of reclaiming traditional Labour values but he stopped short of calling for Tony Blair to be replaced.

Mr Gilchrist achieved prominence during the recent long-running fire dispute, which saw firefighters out on strike in a bid to boost their pay.

He is also seen as a member of the so-called awkward squad of left-wing union bosses.

But he insists that - despite all his misgivings - Tony Blair's administration is not a "Tory government MkII".

His complaint is that the party's leadership is simply not listening.

Listening?

"I think it's quite clear that this particular Labour government at this particular time has lost it's way somewhat on some very important issues.

Gordon Brown
Gilchrist praises Gordon Brown's record
"Our workers in this country don't share the same rights as their colleagues in Europe. We don't meet the international standards in terms of employment.

"I think the government would be wise to listen to what ordinary working people are saying.

"If the government doesn't start to listen to people then their electoral fortunes are likely to be damaged and nobody in the trade union movement wants that to happen and start listening."

He cites the invasion of Iraq which he believes was opposed by "millions of people".

Despite that and other issues, Mr Gilchrist, a Labour member, wants his members to "stay at the heart of the political debate" and retain their affiliation to the party.

He is under no illusions, however.

"I have to say because there is so much disappointment with where the government is on so many issues at the moment the affiliation question is a real issue."

'Successful chancellor'

Ultimately it will not be his decision as the members of the Fire Brigades Union decides the issue of affiliation democratically.

We meet in the lunchtime break before Mr Brown's speech and Gilchrist is quick to praise the chancellor's record which he describes as "very successful".

He also makes it clear that he is investing a lot of hope that the chancellor can reclaim the values of "Real Labour as opposed to New Labour".

"I sincerely hope that Gordon Brown rediscovers for all of us the real values of Labour this afternoon."

Asked whether there should be a move to replace Mr Blair he says: "That's clearly a matter for the Labour Party - I'm a member and as far as that's concerned I am involved in that process but we do our business a bit differently to other political parties."

Firefighters when they went out on strike had asked for 30,000 and in the end the FBU leadership settled for 25,000.

Cave in?

At the time there was considerable anger that Gilchrist had settled when he did.

Asked if people in the FBU thought he had caved in, he said: "Yeah, most people you speak to have a point of view about it.

"I have to say that firefighters will receive a 16% pay rise, a new pay formula linked to the professional grades of workers so in some senses there were significant gains."

He insists that the FBU will continue to work for what he calls "industrial peace".

"I think people would be wise to remember that it was six months after we lodged our pay claim before we took any industrial action at all," he said.

"We were working hard in those six months to secure a negotiated pay deal - it was others that seemed hell bent on conflict."




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