Cllr John Hannon and Cllr David Williams, of Redcar and Cleveland Council, have quit the Labour Party and now sit as independents. This means that Labour has lost overall control of the council.
The cause of the dispute is a u-turn from the Labour councillors over Cleveland Fire Brigade becoming a public service mutual. Labour, at a local level, used to support the idea but has now backed down – under pressure from the Fire Brigades Union and Labour MPs.
Cllr Hannon says:
“It wasn’t a hard decision for me to make because I always put the people before the party.
"There was a motion recently going against the public service mutual and I was against that.
“I always thought we were behind our fire brigade and the group was backing the chief fire officer but there was a U-turn after being put under pressure.
“I am now going to the Independent group and I am looking forward to continuing to put the people first.”
The Labour MP and Shadow Fire Minister, Chris Williamson, has attacked the proposal for a public service mutual and described it as "privatization." However, Cllr Robert Payne, a Labour councillor in Hartlepool and Chairman of the Cleveland Fire Authority, said this was "scaremongering."
The Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, says: "All the evidence shows that employees who have a stake in their business are more motivated to improve the services they run."
Employees at Cleveland Fire Brigade have already set up a social enterprise which provides fire prevention services to businesses and uses the profits to fund fire prevention work in the community. This has helped contribute to the number of fires in Cleveland falling well below the national average.
The change would mean that Cleveland Fire Brigade would be owned by its employees – rather like John Lewis. The Labour Party nationally is against this saying there is no support among the workforce – by which they mean no support from the Fire Brigades Union – which has a far left leadership.
The Labour MP, Tom Blenkinsop, opposes "mutualising a life-or-death public service." However, the Labour MP and Shadow Minister, Gareth Thomas, supports mutuals for hospitals.These were started under Labour by Lord Darzi and have brought great benefits in terms of productivity, innovation and communication between staff and management. He included the proviso that if they failed to do a good job they could lose the contract after five years to a private firm. The unions don't like them due to their flexibility in being able to vary terms and conditions.
The truth is that "mutualising a life-or-death public service" increases the prospects of life and reduces the prospect of death. If Labour agree with this for the health service (if they still do) why don't they agree with this for the fire brigade?