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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Discordant saga

By Norman Lebrecht / October 24, 2001

Last November, the MU, which represents 31,000 strummers, puffers and crooners in the UK, suffered a shock result at the polls. Its veteran general secretary, Dennis Scard, was beaten by an obscure East Londoner, Derek Kay, by a margin of just eight votes in 8,000. No matter how many recounts were called for, the result simply would not come out right for the incumbent.

Next morning, the defeated Scard informed Kay that one of his old chums on the executive committee (EC) had lodged a complaint about the challenger's conduct. Kay was accused of publishing statements on his website that, in the time-honoured phrase, "brought the union into disrepute". Among other things, he accused officials of alleged "malpractice" and the union itself of being "effectively bankrupt". Fairly low-key electoral rhetoric, one might have thought, but the EC thought otherwise.

At a prompt disciplinary tribunal, Kay was suspended from office for five years, depriving him of the chance to do the job he had been elected to do. This left the union safely in the hands of old-guard officials, who distrusted Kay for lacking experience at head office. His election, it was said, "belittles the credibility of the post and endangers the stability of the union". It could not be allowed to stand.

As the case moved to the Law Courts, the EC, chaired by John Patrick, ballotted members to support its action against Kay. The suspended general secretary was unable to argue his case, much of which was sub judice. Unsurprisingly, the EC won a ragged endorsement.

Finally, this month, Kay caved in. Faced with heavy costs, he reached an "amicable agreement" with the union, the terms of which are being kept confidential. From the details that have reached my eyes, the deal amounts to an unqualified victory for the old guard. Kay has resigned as general secretary and will not contest the post again, as he remains suspended from holding office. His only gain is full payment of his wages and legal costs. The agreement, it was announced, had "been reached with a view to safeguarding the future of the Union as a whole" - though that worthy aim already has more holes in it than an oboe.

The MU plans to call a fresh election next year. But first it will seek a change in the rules to allow the EC to nominate its own "preferred candidate", thereby ensuring the union stays forever in safe hands. A further rule change may require candidates to have national experience before standing.

The value of such experience has been amply demonstrated in an untold sub-plot to Kay's removal. Several union members contacted the government certification officer for trade unions, suggesting that those who had unseated Kay were not entitled to do so. The CO's ruling, delivered three weeks ago, was unequivocal.

He declared that Dennis Scard had been "unlawfully" in office at the time he approved disciplinary proceedings against Kay, and that John Patrick had been "unlawfully" acting as chairman of the EC. Patrick was ordered to step down forthwith.

In plain industrial English, the men who brought down the duly elected Derek Kay were themselves breaking the rules. To give one example: Kay was notified of his suspension by John Patrick, who had no authority to do so. He appealed to an EC tribunal chaired by the same John Patrick, who should not have been there.

It gets worse. John Petters, one of the concerned members who contacted the certification officer, was served with charges of bringing the union into disrepute by a veteran EC member, Bill Sweeney. Rather than face a kangaroo court, Petters resigned from the union.

Seen from the outside, all this looks like the dancing of dinosaurs to an antedeluvian tune. The MU seems unaware that unions are no longer meant to be run by intimidatory hierarchies. Musicians are mostly too busy to notice. If they want to redeem the union from disrepute, they will need to find a fearless independent candidate who is prepared to take on the old guard and drag the MU into modernity.

31 January 2001: Time to take stock [the Musicians' Union is facing a long, cold winter]

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




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