Could the Police Federation become a model for the trade union movement?

May 22, 2014 by
Filed under: Adam Lent 

The media may have concentrated on Theresa May’s speech but the more profound news from yesterday’s Police Federation conference is the fact that all thirty-six of the RSA Independent Review’s recommendations were accepted as a total package of reform by an overwhelming vote of the delegates.

This is a huge step for the Federation. For once the phrase “root and branch reform” is completely appropriate. The Fed has agreed to totally new arrangements for it senior officers, its executive committee, its local structures, its finances and its core purpose. It has even agreed to cut membership fees.

For the first time in many years that means it is possible to say the following without any hint of irony: the Police Federation could act as a model to other organisations particularly trade unions.

Three aspects of the Federation reforms should, in my view, be considered by other unions.

 

Members’ interests AND the public interest

The Fed will now revise its core purpose so that the organisation is committed both to serving the interests of its members but also the wider public interest. The Review recognised that the militancy and self-interest that afflicts some sections of the Federation had only done the organisation harm but had, of course, damaged trust in the police – an issue of deep public importance.

This problem may not have reached quite the same intensity in other unions but clearly some, particularly in the public sector, often seem gripped by a militancy which damages the standing of the professionals they are representing but also has wider implications for the efficiency of public services and the success of the economy.

This is not to say that the relationship between members’ interests and the wider public interest is necessarily straightforward – indeed they can, at least on a narrow short-term reading, seem in conflict but what the Fed has decided is that it is the role of a professional and responsible union to constantly keep the balance in mind when making big decisions.

 

Democracy AND professionalism

The Police Federation has also agreed to change the way its most senior officers are chosen. In future, the Chair will be elected by all members rather than by the thirty members of the Joint Central Committee. S/he will guarantee that the voices of members and branches are heard and will be the guardian of the overall strategy of the organisation. The General Secretary will be the chief executive with day-to-day responsibility for the organisation and with implementing the strategy: s/he will be a professional appointment rather than elected.

Currently trade unions are run by a general secretary and president elected by all members. While this sounds democratic it has not always worked in the best interests of the union movement. The truth is that union elections have an exceptionally low turnout which means that senior positions are decided largely by an activist core often as a result of jockeying between factions representing different shades of militancy and/or radical socialism. The opportunity to appoint on merit or to choose a leader from outside the union movement who could bring a fresh perspective is not possible.

By creating an elected chair with strategic responsibility and an appointed general secretary with operational responsibility, the Federation has opted for an arrangement which should combine democracy with merit and professionalism.

If any union did want to adopt such an arrangement it would require a change in the law which currently requires senior positions to be elected by all members. An obstacle but maybe not an insuperable one under a sympathetic government that would genuinely welcome more professional, responsible and effective unions.

 

Independent accountability

The Fed has also agreed to establish an independent reference group of four to six senior people from outside the organisation (of whom half should be from outside the policing world altogether) to act as a “critical friend” particularly on the issue of whether the Federation is meeting its public interest purpose and potentially other issues such as diversity and equality. It will produce an annual report assessing the Fed’s performance. The group would have no formal constitutional power but it would, particularly if it produced a critical report, have great informal political power to push the organisation back on to the rails.

My personal view is that all major organisations (think banks!) would benefit from such disinterested accountability but why shouldn’t trade unions lead the way?

One of the big problems with the trade union movement is that it is rarely exposed to constructive views or alternative ways of doing things from outside the movement. It is a closed and often defensive world with its own group think, conventions and politics. This is never a good position for an organisation to be in as the Federation’s own recent experience shows. Accountability and efficacy are diminished. Building external assessment and critique into the very heart of a union structure could help blow away some of the very heavy cobwebs and show that there are different and better ways of doing things.

 

Of course, there are many other measures that unions could adopt to improve their standing and efficacy at a time when neither of those things run very high but these three changes offer a start. At the very least they would show that, like the Police Federation, unions are beginning to acknowledge and address some deep-seated weaknesses that afflict much of the movement.

 

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