Activists halt power transfer

June 4, 2004

Phil Baty reports from lecturers' union Natfhe's annual conference in Blackpool

Natfhe activists have beaten off a proposal to give ordinary members a direct say in the running of their union.

Delegates at the Blackpool conference last weekend voted to defer plans by the union's national executive (NEC) to give ordinary union members in local branches more power by allowing them to be directly represented at the union's annual policy-making conference.

Conference delegates are selected by influential regional councils, composed of activists who have traditionally been more radical and experienced than grassroots members.

The regional councils are keen to preserve their power, claiming that the experienced activists they select are better able to act as a bulwark against NEC power. They fear that branches would nominate delegates who lacked the wherewithal to stand up to a determined executive.

An emergency motion from six regions, debated behind closed doors, said the NEC should withdraw its proposals for "direct branch representation" and present them again at next year's conference after taking into account the "crucial role of the regions".

The motion was overwhelmingly carried by conference delegates hand-picked by the 13 regions. One delegate described the NEC's reforms as like "asking turkeys to vote for Christmas".

In a further move against the NEC's plans, delegates secured a commitment from Jacqui Johnson - the chair of the union's finance, membership and organisation committee - to cancel a planned consultative ballot of all Natfhe members about the proposals.

The NEC views the move as essential to revitalising the union. Paul Mackney, Natfhe general secretary, supported the reforms in a frank speech.

He said it was not enough "to fill the union with right-on people at regional level passing right-on motions if we don't build the cadre at the base". He said that reforms would send a message to branch activists that their role was crucial.

Mr Mackney added: "The uncomfortable truth is that the government and employers ignore us or fail to do what we want because they can. They can ignore us because we have insufficient members and are poorly organised in far too many institutions."

He said that although membership was at its highest for 15 years, it was "pathetically low" in too many institutions.

Although the official debate on the reforms was closed to the media, a fringe meeting on the plans revealed deep divisions.

Neil Williamson, chair of the higher education committee and an NEC member, claimed that opponents in the NEC had argued that "there is no point in asking the members because we know they'll give the wrong answer".

Liz Lawrence, an executive member, said that some branches would not be able to "get their act together" to send delegates to conference. By contrast, she said that regions were made up of committed and informed activists.

She said: "We could end up with a smaller conference where the NEC has a bigger voting bloc - a move away from democracy."

Delegate Tina Downs suspected an executive ploy to increase its power at conference.

"This is an attempt to get delegates from branches at conference who may not have been exposed to the wider views and would be much easier to manipulate by the establishment."

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