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Activists braced for arrival of maverick president

"He's certainly going to be a president with whom I'll enjoy having stimulating discussions."

That's not normally the way trade union general secretaries talk of their presidents, but Paul Mackney, the most cerebral of general secretaries, has been handed a president to whom all the fierce certainties of trade union work are there to be examined, pored over, and reconsidered.

In fact, if Natfhe's general secrtary and its next president Dennis Hayes aren't careful, they will still be having stimulating intellectual exchanges while the issue is decided somewhere else.

The 54-year-old head of the Centre for Professional Learning at Canterbury Christ Church University College will become Natfhe president next year, and will certainly be a contrast to current president Sam Allen, who showed himself genial but effective in the chair of last week's conference.

Many words are used to describe Hayes but genial is not one of them, and his effectiveness remains to be tested. Already, he has attracted a conference motion attacking him for daring to question the extent to which the union talks about allegations of staff being bullied by management.

The motion, from London Region, was withdrawn when he promised to go and discuss the issue with them.

He says self-deprecatingly he ought to be banned from using the phrase "it depends what you mean by" yet still cannot stop himself from saying "it depends what you mean by institutional racism" to people who feel quite certain that this has a simple and obvious meaning. His was the only voice raised at the conference questioning the Tomlinson Report. He is well outside Natfhe's traditional comfort zone.

He is thin, energetic, elliptical, tense and intense, a man who avoids easy conclusions with such determination that one sometimes wonders whether he will reach any conclusion at all.

Mackney, selecting his words like a man walking through a minefield, says:

"I look forward to Dennis bringing his immense ability to bear on the union's objectives."

Immense ability is the one thing everyone grants him, from his enemies in Natfhe to his colleagues at Canterbury Christ Church.

He is literate and cultured; a working-class boy from Preston who went to the local secondary modern and then escaped into the grammar school sixth form - but, typically, refuses nonetheless to line up wholeheartedly with the anti-selection lobby.

He defeated for the presidency, against the odds, a man of utter certainty, the voice of the left in Natfhe for many years - the then treasurer Fawzi Ibrahim. But this does not mean that it was a vote for doubt, a mandate for querulousness. Rather, it looks as though Hayes, author of scholarly books and articles about education and politics, spoke to a longing in the union for serious debate about education, a debate that for years has had to take second place to wars of attrition over pay and conditions.

Hayes's politics are as equivocal as the man. He says he's "on the left but not part of it" and calls himself a "radical libertarian". He is a member of the Institute of Ideas, which describes itself as "a forum for intelligent and lively public debate of complex social issues" - but whose roots are in one of the most rigid and sectarian of the 1970s socialist grouplets, the Revolutionary Communist Party. Arguably, that makes him as suspect on the left as it is possible to be.

Two years ago, George Monbiot in the Guardian described the institute as "a group which has travelled from the most distant fringes of the left to the extremities of the pro-corporate libertarian right". But to Hayes, the institute is simply what its name implies - a place where radical ideas can be tested in debate.

He accepts that he is far from being the traditional Natfhe activist. But the difference is neither as stark nor as simple as it appears.

He will, no doubt, explain to the London Region that he does not mean there are no bullying principals in further education, because there clearly are.

It is just that he feels those who complain about bullying management are settling for the lesser power of victimhood.

In the same way, his objection to the idea of "institutional racism" as defined in the Macpherson report after the Stephen Lawrence murder does not place him among those who think nothing should be done about racism.

It places him closer to the black power activists, who refuse to be seen as victims.

But are these distinctions - careful, cerebral, the distinctions of a trained philosopher who loves complexity - the ones required of a trade union leader in a year which is likely to see the biggest ever strike in further education? Maybe they are. We'll find out next year.

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