Ballot papers have been sent out to GMB members in the union’s General Secretary election, a choice between the incumbent Tim Roache and the union’s European Officer, Kathleen Walker-Shaw.
That an election is taking place at all is an achievement.
In previous elections only 30 nominations were needed to get onto the ballot paper. But last year’s GMB conference agreed to increase the number of nominations by two thirds, raising the number to 50.
The GMB’s rules also make it notoriously difficult, and deliberately so, for anyone who is not already a union full-timer – such as an incumbent General Secretary! – with their own network of contacts to obtain branch nominations.
Three GMB members “expressed an interest” in standing for election and sought to achieve the 50 branch nominations.
Jack Yates – a kind of “rank-and-file” candidate, but one who lacked a “rank-and-file” programme – secured two nominations, Walker-Shaw picked up 57, and Roache over 300.
But then a meeting of the GMB Finance and General Purposes Committee decided that Walker-Shaw was not competent to fill the post of General Secretary and should not be allowed onto the ballot paper – leaving Roache as the only candidate.
Fortunately, this disgraceful decision was overturned on appeal. The embarrassment caused by media coverage of the attempt to exclude Walker-Shaw may have weighed more heavily on the minds of the appeal committee than the actual merits of the appellant’s arguments.
Going on past elections, turnout is likely to be low.
In the 2015 General Secretary (two candidates, both white male) turnout was 4.2% of the membership. Roache was elected with a “mandate” from 2.2% of the union’s membership.
In the 2010 General Secretary election, turnout was zero. There was no election because there was only one candidate (Paul Kenny – white male). Ditto the 2006 General Secretary election: one candidate (Paul Kenny), so no election.
In 2003 there had been an election (two candidates, both white male). But the winner (Kevin Curran) stood down after only two years following allegations of ballot-rigging in the 2003 contest, involving votes being “cast” by dead and lapsed GMB members.
But at least that helped to increase the turnout.
A low turnout is virtually hardwired into General Secretary elections by the GMB’s rules:
• The only election material which a candidate may produce and circulate is their election statement, no more than 1,000 words in length, to be circulated by the GMB with the ballot paper. This also covers electronic communications, i.e. they are not allowed.
• Candidates are not allowed to address “any meeting of any branch (including their own) or Region or Section of the union or any meeting of any kind whether in a workplace or elsewhere on the subject of the election.”
• The only meetings at which a candidate may speak are hustings meeting organised by the GMB, up to a maximum of three such meetings in any region, although it seems some regions will have just one hustings.
These rules also give an inbuilt advantage to an incumbent General Secretary, given that he will already be a “known name”.
Only a week after the day on which Walker-Shaw’s appeal was upheld, for example, all GMB members received an e-mail signed off by Roache, in his capacity as General Secretary, boasting of the union’s proud record (and discounted offers for its members).
On paper there is little to choose between the two candidates, although Walker-Shaw’s election statement does include unspecified commitments to “protecting the independence and democracy of GMB branches” and “strengthening lay membership democracy and governance.”
But a victory for Walker-Shaw, apart from meaning the first ever female GMB General Secretary, would be a spanner in the works of the bureaucratic apparatus built up by Roache and his predecessors over the years and create the space for potential further advances.