by Jon Cruddas MP
Paul Embery is a friend of mine; born and raised in Dagenham and proud of it. He is also a hero, a firefighter and for twenty years an active member of the FBU. However Paul faces being kicked off the FBU national executive and debarred from holding office for two years. His crime? He is a pro-Leave voice on the left – in a party and union movement increasingly hostile to dissenting opinions. Paul sees the EU as an “anti-democratic” force. His views are not my own, but his is a legitimate, essential contribution in an intolerant debate around Brexit, the referendum result, and the future of the left.
His pro-Leave view and defence of the referendum result — a referendum in which many working-class voters chose to leave, including 70% in Dagenham — has directly contributed to his sacking and debarment. His case has received coverage in the national press, and many of my colleagues in the Labour Party have privately raised their concerns about the FBU’s position and its implications.
First, the facts. Paul has been accused of acting “in a way prejudicial to the interests of the union” by speaking at the Leave Means Leave rally in Parliament Square on 29 March. The FBU has made it clear it was the content of Paul’s speech, not his attendance, which led to this disciplinary action. In his speech, Paul criticised the position of pro-EU labour movement leaders and called for the referendum result to be respected. For this, Paul was told he had “undermined and publicly condemned” the FBU’s Brexit position, which was to support Remain in the referendum and to oppose to a ‘no deal’.
When Paul stood on the platform on 29 March, there was no mention of the FBU. Paul was taking part in the rally in his own time and for a totally separate organisation, Trade Unionists Against the EU. Paul was not acting in an official capacity. We must presume the FBU’s position is that no official may express a view contrary to that of the union in his or her spare time, an extraordinary position for the union to hold. Personally, in nearly 40 years involved in the union movement, it would have debarred me from holding office on numerous occasions!
If the union does not overturn the decision to sack and debar Paul, the implications for both the FBU and the wider union movement will be profound. 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. Fortunately, the FBU itself recognises this. Its own guidelines state that it supports the “right of individuals to disagree with the agreed policies of the union.”
Paul’s potential sacking and debarment are illegitimate and unjustified, even under an extreme, disingenuous interpretation of the FBU rules. The case further unravels when we consider its implications. Are we suggesting all FBU officials, and by implication all trade union officials, cannot, under any circumstances, publicly disagree with the stated position of their union when speaking in a personal capacity or when representing another organisation? This would prevent union officials playing an active role in many voluntary, civic, or political organisations. It would violate basic rights to freedom of expression. It is an impossible demand.
Many have suggested that Paul’s sacking was a politically motivated act, an attempt to silence a pro-Leave voice. If so it would be a sad day for the FBU, and wider labour movement. I am sure, however, that the FBU will recognise its mistake, and rectify it.
Paul’s views on Brexit are not my own. That is why those in the Labour movement who share my concerns defend Paul’s right to express them. His speech on the 29 March advocated reconciliation between those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain. I also argue for such reconciliation but it will not be possible without dialogue and a spirit of fraternity.
The right of trade union officials to advocate for political causes not necessarily advocated by their own unions – in their spare time – should be a sacrosanct freedom on the political left, especially on an issue as divisive as Brexit.
If, at this crucial time in our history, we reject pluralist debate and turn our backs on the search for reconciliation, then we cannot claim to be the voice of working people. We must insist on the right of trade union members to defend alternative points of view in their own time. We should recommit to the basic freedoms secured by previous generations of working people. This is about democracy and the principles our movement was built on.
Jon Cruddas is the MP for Dagenham and Rainham