Natfhe gagging row

September 5, 1997

A row over a "gagging clause" blighted the launch of troubled lecturers' union Natfhe's campaign for a new general secretary this week. But an 11th-hour climbdown by the union executive appears to have quelled the anger.

A clause in the election protocol that prohibited candidates from "derogating the conduct of the union" has been dropped from election literature after vociferous protests from members.

Natfhe's search for a replacement for the suspended and prematurely retired John Akker began in earnest this week as notice of the December 1 election was published. Paul Mackney, West Midlands Natfhe branch official, set the ball rolling by proclaiming himself a candidate.

But Mr Mackney quickly sparked controversy over the gagging of members with an attack on the new protocols that prevented Natfhe employees who become election candidates from criticising the union.

Mr Mackney, who has already upset a possible rival candidate, treasurer Vicky Seddon, with outspoken criticisms of the union, had written to the executive complaining about the clause. He said the protocols were as bad as "saying that Tony Blair should not have been allowed to criticise John Major in the general election".

Mr Mackney said he was "very pleased" that the rule had been dropped, albeit at the last minute. "Obviously with the controversial departure of John Akker last May, the union was keen to show public unity," he said. "But that should never have meant that candidates were banned from criticising the union."

The protocol sent out to candidates now simply "requests" that candidates do not "derogate any other candidate, member of the union, or employee of the union". And Mr Mackney is satisfied. "I'm not interested in negative campaigning," he said.

But for some, these protocols still go too far. Aftard Jouhl, a retired former member of Natfhe's national executive committee, said they were still directly equivalent to gagging. "In past elections there have always been criticisms of rival candidates," he said. "As long as it is fair and factual, it is necessary."

Natfhe vice-president Moira Carr said that the protocols were "in no stretch of the imagination a gag on anyone".

"The protocol guidance is there to prevent unnecessary attacks on individuals," she said. "The union will be publishing the exact words submitted by all candidates as required."

She said that the new rule had nothing to do with the controversy surrounding the departure of Mr Akker, last May. "The idea emerged a long time before that," she said. "It arose from unfortunate things said in previous elections."

Mr Mackney is keen for Natfhe to develop a "closer working relationship" with other unions, especially the Association of University Teachers, he said.

Another unconfirmed candidate expected to put himself forward is Barry Lovejoy, further education sector chair.

Nominations for candidates, who require signatures from 50 current members from at least five separate branches, close on October 20. The union's national executive will meet candidates, who must be members of Natfhe or a longstanding senior official at another union, on October 31. Ballot papers go out on November 3, and the result will be announced on December 13.

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