Election for assistant general secretary. Who should members support?

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NOMINATIONS HAVE CLOSED in the election for assistant general secretary (AGS) of the FBU. Campaign for a Democratic FBU understands that the main candidates are the current vice-president and executive council member for the East Midlands, Ben Selby, and the executive council member for London, Dave Shek. Assuming both accept nomination, the union will hold a postal ballot of members to determine the successful candidate.

The position of AGS is a crucial one. The successful candidate will wield considerable influence inside the FBU and be responsible for key areas of the union’s day-to-day activity, such as leading national negotiations, assisting local negotiations and helping to resolve disputes through the National Joint Council, reporting to the executive council and annual conference, and representing the union in matters of operational policy and guidance.

Following a debate among our six-member steering committee, we are calling on both candidates to take part in the widest possible debate and to set out their ideas, plans and vision for the future of the union.

The job is too important to be decided by coronation or backroom deal, so we welcome the fact that there will be an election. Nonetheless, we are not prepared, at this stage, to endorse either candidate. That is because neither candidate has yet convinced us that he is the right person for the job. There are some important questions on which members are entitled to answers and reassurance before casting their votes.

For example, we do not want to see an AGS who is essentially a lapdog of the general secretary. While the AGS is required to act as the general secretary’s deputy, he is not there to do his bidding or to serve as his personal cheerleader. He must instead be willing, when the need arises, to scrutinise and challenge the general secretary and other senior colleagues. He must also be prepared, when necessary, to speak up for the interests of members when the leadership falls short (as it has done frequently in recent times). He also needs to understand that the union is not a vehicle to enable him to advance his own personal politics.

Too often, the FBU leadership acts as though the union were their own personal property. They think they are above scrutiny and accountability. An AGS who isn’t prepared to challenge that mindset would not be one worth voting for.        

On the other hand, we do not want to see an AGS who, while willing to stand up against the general secretary and the union machine, is unsuited to the role more widely and doesn’t possess the skills necessary to carry it out effectively. The position of AGS is a high-profile (and often very public) one. The successful candidate would be required to represent the union in the media and address large audiences of members and fire service leaders. He would need to have an acute understanding of how the fire and rescue service works, in particular how it is structured and funded. He would need to read and write detailed technical reports and lead for the union in high-level and complex national negotiations, for which a deep knowledge of such things as operational policy, the Grey Book and employment agreements is vital. Having the ability to bang tables and tell the bosses to “Poke it” simply wouldn’t be enough at that level; the role demands professionalism, coherence and competence.

The candidates need to be able to explain to members how, in an era of financial retrenchment, they would maintain the union’s influence and effectiveness; how they would expand the membership base; how they would campaign to improve pay and conditions; how they would fight to shape the fire and rescue service in a way that serves the public and not the bean counters; how they would oppose cuts; how they would help to restore democracy and accountability to the heart of our increasingly authoritarian union, and so on.

This is not a dress rehearsal, and the role of AGS is not one for a novice. This is the future of our union. Like most members, we have our ears open. Let the debate begin.

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