Why is an FBU executive council member claiming that a failed strategy to attract an army of new members was really a success?

cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Richard Newall - geograph.org.uk/p/361995

THIS BLOG HAS previously reported on how a ground-breaking strategy proposed by the FBU leadership to arrest a decline in membership numbers and secure the union’s future as an independent organisation has been left gathering dust on a shelf for seven years.

The radical strategy – set out in a policy statement by the executive council and approved by the FBU’s annual conference in 2015 – centred on a proposal to widen the union’s traditional membership base by extending the offer of membership to non­-Grey-Book workers in the fire and rescue service. Until then, the union had represented only uniformed employees of local authority fire and rescue services employed on Grey Book conditions.

The decision was taken against the backdrop of a rapidly-changing fire and rescue service which had led to heavy reductions in the number of Grey Book posts. Many of these posts had been axed completely, while others had been converted to non-Grey-Book roles or outsourced to private enterprises. All of this meant that the FBU’s membership figures were set on a worrying trend downwards (between 2005 and 2015, the number of FBU members fell from 46,811 to 35,810).  

The far-reaching policy statement was moved in a bold set-piece speech by the general secretary at the 2015 conference and agreed by delegates to great fanfare. It set out a number of recommendations designed to ensure delivery of the strategy and made clear that much groundwork would have to be done to ensure the union’s structures were compliant with the new arrangement. The statement also made clear that the leadership itself would assume responsibility for much of the preparatory work and place itself at the heart of implementation.

Since then, however, virtually nothing has happened. There has been no concerted effort to implement the strategy, and the policy statement appears to have simply fallen off the leadership’s radar. In the meantime, FBU membership numbers have fallen by a further 3,309.

The total inertia since 2015 can only be seen as an utter failure on the part of the leadership. That being the case, members might ask why it was that one member of the executive council recently took to social media to defend the leadership on the issue and argue that the strategy had been a success. Odd though it may seem, that was precisely the argument advanced by the executive council member for the north-west of England, Les Skarratts, in a debate with Campaign for a Democratic FBU on Twitter.

In essence, Skarratts told us that his own region had made progress with recruiting non-Grey-Book members and that we were wrong to claim the strategy had not been implemented nationwide. Indeed, he went further and claimed, though without providing much evidence, that “great strides” had been made in recruiting and organising non-Grey-Book workers.

Skarratts went on to assert that, in any case, responsibility for delivery of the strategy lay with regional committees over the executive council and, if we had any criticisms, we should direct them towards local officials. “The policy was that regional committees seek to strategise and seek approval of the EC for that strategy,” Skarratts told us. “Has your regional committee done that? Have you challenged them through your branch, brigade and regional committee structure?” he asked. This seemed, to us, to amount to a rather unprincipled attempt to reinvent the policy statement and to pass the buck. Skarratts ended by chastising us for not showing “unity”.

Well, let’s dissect Skarratts’ argument in detail.

First of all, an examination of the text of the policy statement shows that it is absurd to claim that the leadership did not intend for itself to be a key part of driving the implementation of the strategy. For example, it is stated in the policy that “The executive council is aware that this approach requires considerable further development and consideration. It will require resources, training and new thinking if it is to be successful.”

In particular, the statement required the executive council to circulate explanatory material setting out details of the new arrangement to members; provide education and training for officials; find solutions to the inevitable organisational challenges thrown up by new arrangement; conduct a thorough survey of the state of health of local committees to assist the leadership in assessing future progress on the strategy; and to provide extra resources to assist brigade officials in adapting to the new arrangement. None of this has been done in the seven years since the policy statement was agreed.

Moreover, there has been no centrally-organised campaign to promote FBU membership to non-Grey-Book workers and no advice to local officials on how to run local recruitment drives or secure recognition agreements for this cohort. In fact, it is likely that most non-Grey-Book workers in local fire and rescue services still have no idea that FBU membership is an option to them, and many local FBU officials would have little or no idea of what action to take in the event they were approached by these workers. Seven years after the policy statement was agreed and the union’s rule book still does not even make reference to any contribution rate for non-Grey-Book members.

By any impartial assessment, the strategy has been a complete failure – not because it was wrong, but because the leadership simply failed to implement it with sufficient enthusiasm and rigour.

If anyone should be in any doubt about that, an examination of the annually-published FBU membership figures should dispel it. The executive council’s annual report in 2018 showed that the number of non-Grey-Book members totalled 49. In 2022, the figure stood at a pitiable 230. That’s an increase of just 181 in four years from a very low starting point – the equivalent of just over three non-Grey-Book members per region per year. This is despite the fact that, as the policy statement itself recognised, “There are numerous examples of workers in such areas of employment (and who are not currently organised) seeking membership of the union but not being recruited.” There are, in fact, several thousand non-Grey-Book employees – many of them not currently in a union – working inside local fire and rescue services. “Great strides” indeed, Brother Skarratts!

The truth is that Skarratts and his fellow FBU leaders are all too quick to blame local officials for their own failings. We saw it a couple of weeks ago with the union leadership’s woeful media performance during the heatwave, when local fire and rescue services – many of which had been cut to the bone over recent years – were stretched to breaking point. On that occasion, senior FBU officials tried to deflect criticism for the absence of leadership figures on the mainstream national media by claiming that they expected local officials to front any media intervention instead. And now they are doing the same over the failed strategy to recruit non-Grey-Book employees.

It simply is not good enough for FBU leaders to propose radical strategies from on high, and then sit back and blame the poor bloody infantry when things don’t work out. But that is what they are doing. Their actions amount to an abdication of leadership and an unethical attempt to redirect the blame.

Skarratts and co are quick enough to take the credit for any successes. They should also be big enough to take the rap when things go wrong.

The key question now is: when is the leadership going to start properly implementing the 2015 policy statement? Against the backdrop of relentless cuts to our service, and as membership numbers continue to nosedive, the leadership is, in continuing to allow things to drift, taking great risks with the future of our union.

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