Why does the FBU leadership consistently show contempt for the parliament of the union?

A RECURRING CRITICISM of the FBU leadership is that it regularly fails to properly progress resolutions agreed at the union’s annual conference. This is a long-running problem that shows no sign of being put right.

Conference is often referred to as the “parliament” of the FBU. Every year, delegates representing FBU members in every local fire and rescue service across the country gather for three or four days, usually at a seaside resort, to discuss, debate and vote upon a whole range of matters.

Each delegation is entitled to submit resolutions to conference. These resolutions will cover a myriad of industrial and political issues affecting the union’s members. They will usually make particular proposals or demands, and will often call on the union’s leadership to carry out certain instructions. If a resolution is supported by a majority of conference delegates, it becomes the official policy of the union.

Conference costs the union tens of thousands of pounds to hold every year, and is – or at least should be – the very heart of decision-making inside our union. There is no higher authority than the union’s annual conference.

But over recent years conference has lost much of its energy and authority, and the event has become less and less relevant. This is in large part because the union’s leadership does not give conference the respect it deserves.

Resolutions passed at annual conference are often kicked into the long grass or ignored completely by the leadership. If anyone should doubt this, we recommend they have a read through the annual “Record of Decisions” booklets, published and uploaded to the FBU website after each conference. They will find an endless stream of resolutions that have simply not been actioned in any serious way.

We have, for example, previously highlighted how a radical strategy agreed by annual conference to expand the FBU’s membership base and secure its future as an independent organisation has been sat gathering dust on a shelf for seven years. For the purposes of this blog, we will single out another example (we could have chosen any number!). In 2019, the London delegation moved a resolution at annual conference calling for the introduction of electronic balloting alongside the traditional form of postal balloting for internal FBU elections. The delegation’s argument was sound: FBU elections are often marked by low turnouts, and it would make sense for the union to encourage greater democratic participation among members by making it easier for them to vote. A feasible way to achieve this was to enable members to vote electronically. It was almost certain that most members would welcome the opportunity to cast their vote via a smartphone or tablet rather than having to put an envelope in a postbox.

The resolution called on the leadership to draw up a list of union positions that would be subject to electronic balloting and to bring forward the necessary changes to the union’s rule book at the next conference.

The resolution, if given effect, would be a shot in the arm for democracy in the union. No wonder conference supported it overwhelmingly.

But skip forward three years, and absolutely nothing has been done about the resolution. While it is true that the planned conferences in 2020 and 2021 were cancelled on account of the covid pandemic, the event did take place as normal in May of this year. Yet, even though the executive council proposed a raft of changes to the union’s rule book at this conference, none of them was related to the resolution on electronic voting passed in 2019. This resolution, like so many others, seems to have just disappeared into a black hole.

These kinds of failings make a mockery of the claim that conference is the “parliament” of the union. What is the point of FBU branches taking the trouble to draft and debate resolutions, and then to progress them through their brigade committee and up to conference, if the leadership just wilfully ignores them once they are passed?

Somewhat ironically, the failure of the leadership to progress conference resolutions has itself been the subject of resolutions to conference over recent years. Moving one of those resolutions in 2018, a delegate representing the officers’ national committee, Simon Amos, told conference:

“Here we are, Groundhog Day … The same resolution for the third year on the trot … Other than the balmy sea air and camaraderie of seeing each other again, what is the point of conference? We come here to raise resolutions, debate and vote on them. But, ultimately, if they don’t achieve anything, what is the point of conference?”

Amos was right to ask the question.

Senior officials are quick to tell members “It’s your union,” and “If you want to change things, use the union’s democratic structures,” but these arguments ring hollow when they themselves show contempt for democratic decisions made via the supreme governing body of the union.

If the integrity of annual conference is to be maintained, it is vital that its authority and supremacy is restored. For that to happen, FBU leaders must stop treating the event as though it were little more than a necessary inconvenience, and start giving it the respect it deserves.

Members are entitled to expect that resolutions passed at annual conference will be actioned – and actioned in a timely fashion. FBU leaders can hardly blame a lack of resources for their failings; after all, they have refused for over a year to run an election for one of the four full-time national officer positions which is currently vacant (itself a breach of previous conference decisions instructing them to run an election for the position). And they seem to have plenty of time to spend on wider political activities.

The contempt shown by the current crop of FBU leaders for annual conference is another example of how they have eroded democracy, accountability and transparency in our union. And that is why our group exists – to highlight their actions and to challenge them.

We urge all members and officials to do the same.

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