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The former king ghosts his own execution

All the blood-letting over the suspension and early retirement of NATFHE general secretary John Akker happened outside the conference hall behind closed doors over two days.

Then, with conference almost at a close, a 30-minute statement on the executive's "acceptance" of his retirement was delivered - and written questions answered - with clinical efficiency by membership and organisation chair Jean Cooke.

Three hundred delegates, packing the Grand Hall of the Spa Complex in Scarborough, were occasionally restive and made cynical mumblings at her constant refusal to give information on the procedures and the terms of the settlement (understood to include an Pounds 80,000 pay-off). There was "mutually agreed confidentiality".

But, after a few muted protests, they consigned the man to history and thought on the election of their fourth general secretary in seven years. The discipline of the executive impressed even the most ardent of Trots in the audience.

What made events so bizarre was that the man who was once king was there throughout to witness his deposition. Armed with reporters' credentials for Education Journal, he sat on the press desk and, in the words of one delegate, "moved among us like a ghost".

Friends of John Akker insist he is still intent on challenging legally the way the union dealt with his suspension and the agreement he signed. Under union rules, he is ineligible to stand next time, but an effective legal challenge may change that. Would he stand again? According to a close and, now former, colleague: "Whether he would stand is something he will make his mind up on nearer the time. It is a point of principle that is at issue."

Others were less reticent. The ebullient and bearded 47-year-old West Midlands regional officer Paul Mackney was the first to set out his stall for election. (Did he give an interview to the reporter from Education Journal? That will be a test for the cub reporter's burgeoning skills).

Mr Mackney does not mince words: "NATFHE has been drifting. The absence of national strategic leadership within the union has meant that few people now listen to what it has to say. Any new general secretary will have to work hard to ensure that NATFHE regains credibility as the principal union for new university and college lecturers."

He feels the union has "let members down", "failed to prevent unprecedented levels of work-induced stress" and "failed to halt a sharp decline in pay and conditions."

But, with a solid organisational base, despite 18 years of Thatcherism, and a new Government, the right leader can take the union through a necessary reorganisation to deal with a whole range of issues - from equal opportunities to better support for part-timers - more effectively.

He's also the man, he said, to "re-establish meaningful national pay bargaining" with the Association of Colleges. He boasts lot of local success: 30 NATFHE negotiated college deals, five under way, five stalemates compared with just five AOC contracts.

It may be some time before anyone else enters the frame officially. Rank and file meet in two weeks and will draw up a slate.

Barry Lovejoy, FE sector chair, is certain to stand, though he has refused to declare at this stage. Vicky Seddon, the treasurer, insists it is too early, although she is said to be seeking close friends' advice.

Then again, what's the rush? The earliest date any appointment is likely to be made is December 13. The executive narrowly defeated pressure from delegates for a more rushed agenda (by October). The general secretary's job description is being revised, a caretaker administration has taken over Mr Akker's duties, and the new post will be advertised on September 1.

The inevitable question on the lips of several delegates, as Mr Akker slipped quietly away at the close of conference, was: "How long will the next one last?"

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