FBU leadership breaks rules by failing to hold key national election

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AT THE END of June last year, FBU national officer Sean Starbuck departed the union in controversial circumstances – the latest in a string of employees to leave after receiving a confidential pay-off in return for signing a gagging order.

Under union rules, an election for Starbuck’s replacement should have been held by 30 December 2021. But it didn’t happen. And now we call on the FBU leadership to provide an explanation for this failure.

The position of national officer is a key one inside the FBU. Those holding the role can expect to wield considerable influence over crucial areas of the union’s operations.

Rule D5 of the FBU rule book requires that “there shall be elected three national officers” – though the union’s annual conference agreed some time ago, as part of an ongoing structural review, to temporarily reduce this number to two.

Starbuck held one of these two elected national officer posts. Consequently, upon his departure, only one elected national officer remained in post.

In recent years, and following the approval of the union’s annual conference, the two elected national officer posts have been supplemented by two additional national officer posts appointed on a temporary basis by the executive council. However, it is important to note that the requirement to maintain at least two elected national officer posts is not in any way affected by the number of appointed national officers in place.

Indeed, a resolution on internal organisation and structure carried at the union’s annual conference in 2019 stated explicitly that the two elected national officer posts “shall be maintained”. It also stated that an election would be held whenever one of these two posts fell vacant. (The resolution can be read here.)

Moving that resolution on behalf of the executive council, the general secretary, Matt Wrack, assured conference delegates that elections for the two elected national officer posts would indeed take place in the event of a vacancy arising. (The general secretary’s comments can be read on page 23 of this document.)

Rule E3(2)(iii) of the FBU rule book requires that, in the event of an elected national officer position falling vacant, the union must hold an election for a replacement “within six months”.

Sean Starbuck’s final day in office was, according to a circular from the general secretary, 30 June 2021. Given that FBU election processes can take several weeks to be completed, it was surely reasonable to have expected the leadership to begin the process to elect Starbuck’s replacement in good time.

Yet, here we are, two weeks beyond the six-month deadline set out in the rule book, and the election process hasn’t even started, let alone been completed. So what precisely is going on?

It is well known that some senior officials – including the general secretary – are increasingly favourable to the idea of having national officers appointed rather than elected. Members will therefore be suspicious that the failure to run an election for Starbuck’s replacement is part of some kind of wider agenda to move permanently towards a system of appointing all national officers.

But, whatever their long-term desire, senior officials have no right whatsoever to bypass existing union rules and policies. Those rules and policies require that an election be held whenever an elected national officer post falls vacant. Starbuck’s old post is vacant. So the election should be run. Period.

On the wider debate about the merits of appointing national officers versus electing them, many members may feel that allowing a small group of senior officials to hand-pick national officers poses a serious threat to internal democracy. For it inevitably means that any candidate who is known to be a critic of the leadership will be at a disadvantage. Thus, it is a system that encourages conformity among potential candidates and discourages dissent.

Ultimately it cannot be right in the long-term for national officers, with all the influence that position brings, to be chosen in a closed process by a handful of senior union figures rather than elected by the mass of members.

In failing to run the election for Sean Starbuck’s replacement in line with the timescales set out in the rule book, FBU leaders are again showing an utter disregard for the rules and policies of the union. They seem to think they can just set aside certain rules and policies when it suits them, or when they are inconvenient, or when they don’t agree with them, or when it suits their agenda to do so.

Well, they can’t. The FBU’s annual conference – the parliament of the union – does not go to the trouble of agreeing rules and policies only for those rules and policies to later be ignored.

As if the reputation of the leadership wasn’t damaged enough as a result of its appalling handling of the recent election for Scottish regional secretary, it now seems intent on making matters worse.

The official trade union regulator has the power to investigate complaints over failures by trade unions to run elections in accordance with their own rules and policies, and it is almost certain that any complaint about the FBU’s failure to hold an election for the national officer position vacated by Sean Starbuck would succeed.

We therefore call on the FBU leadership to respect the rules and policies of the union. The election for national officer should be run without further delay.