OPINION: Blair must choose carefully in the war of words

The PR battle to win the hearts and minds of the British public over the rights and wrongs of the firefighters' pay claim is now in full swing.

On one side you have the Fire Brigades Union with a tiny staff and just one press officer brought in especially for the campaign. On the other you have the entire government machine backed up by a press largely hostile to unions. The FBU, however, represents heroes. Men and women (despite most of the media still referring to firemen) who daily risk their lives to protect you and me not just in fires, but all major accidents. The firefighters are not naturally a militant bunch, but there is no group of workers who are more likely to stick together when faced down by the Government. If Tony Blair thinks he's just facing Scargill and the miners, he had better think again.

So far the Government has bungled its way into a dispute it can't win.

No matter how much Blair tries to demonise unions, we aren't talking about unions here - we're talking about firefighters who have the public on their side. And it's easy to see why. Would you daily risk your life for £21,000? The Government continually refers to the 40 per cent the FBU is demanding, and this sounds a lot. It would actually take the firefighters up to £30,000 - less than a tube driver, and less than John Prescott's pay rises since he's been a minister.

All these statistics will no doubt be reworked by both sides over the coming weeks, but don't expect the press to play fair. A taste of what's to come came this week in The Times. This was the opening two paragraphs in a piece on the young FBU leader Andy Gilchrist: 'Che Guevara gazes down on Andy Gilchrist from his office wall ... claims that Mr Gilchrist is a member of the Socialist Workers Party are met with a swift denial'.

Claims by whom?

Gilchrist has been a Labour Party member all his life and it was only an impassioned speech to his conference that stopped the union from ever supporting Labour again. His members are rightly angry that a Labour government has let them down so badly. Believe it or not, Andy Gilchrist also has a picture of Blair on his wall shaking hands with the FBU leader on the only time they have ever met, and he's proud of that picture.

Officially Prescott is in charge of the dispute for the Government, but the very sight of the man who led the charge for higher Cabinet pay on TV makes firefighters so angry that the Government has appointed Nick Raynsford as its big hitter. The problem is that Raynsford's only ammunition is that the FBU won't support the so-called independent enquiry. Given that Blair told the local authorities not to offer the firefighters any more than four per cent, the FBU has refused to have anything to do with the enquiry on the basis that it has no power. In any event it was set up too late.

The first 'dirty trick' of the battle so far came with the Government's claim that the part-time firefighters would not back the strike. The discredited Retained Firefighters Union, which even the TUC won't recognise, had said it would not strike. What it didn't say was that the vast majority of retained or part-timers are in the FBU and will strike.

The last time the firefighters went on strike they got the overwhelming support of the public. The Government may have millions to spend on PR and spin against the FBU, but it won't work.

Jim Callaghan took the same view of the firefighters as Blair and not only lost the dispute - within a year he had lost his job. Blair had better beware.

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