Who would lead the lecturers?
The lecturers' union is at a watershed. It will have had four general secretaries in the past seven years. The last three have been thrown out, or were unceremoniously retired.
The annual conference has been cropped in size and length and the number of staff at its Brittania Street headquarters has been trimmed. There is talk of moving out to a new, less expensive base. After the exit of the previous general secretary John Akker, Tessa Blackstone, the new education minister, snubbed NATFHE by refusing to turn up at its conference. Instead she sent a video and members spent the beginning of the session debating whether to watch it.
The word on the street was that if ministers wanted to show they could be tough with the unions, here was an early sacrificia l lamb.
In 1989 NATFHE's membership was 81,407. In 1994, it had plummeted to 71,430. Latest figures for 1997 show a membership of 66,000. It may not be due to loss of faith in the union. Since the incorporation of FE colleges in 1993, it is estimated that 15,000 lecturing posts have been lost through redundancy. More will continue to be lost as efficiency gains are implemented.
The financial situation is not as bleak as some may suggest. The projected deficit for this year is #163;170,000 and measures are in hand to reduce it. The union has obviously lost subscriptions through redundancies and increasing casualisation. It describes claims that the union is nearly bankrupt as "ridiculous".
NATFHE has the same problem as the sector it mainly represents - further education. It has a cloak of invisibility and a deep, dark sense of its own helplessness. All the candidates for the general secretaryship are from within the union and some of them have been around a long time. Long enough to know what the problems are, and possibly long enough to have tried to confront them in the past.
In the last election Mr Akker was the only one from outside the union to stand for the post and he got the job - just. But he turned out not to be the person that they wanted and it ended in tears.
Not surprisingly, the theme of leadership of the union stands out in many of the election early soundbites. This ought to be a time of cautious optimism. Ministers, especially the conference shunning Tessa Blackstone, have gone out of their way to stress their interest in and concern for further education. Some of it is believable.
The Kennedy report on widening participation was widely seen, as the author herself put it, as an attempt to mug dons, because of the merest hint that FE should be the receptacle for future, even increased, government funds. If internecine warfare could be removed from NATFHE ranks, just think what the peace could bring.
But the domestic housework problems will have to be sorted. Does the union merge, confederate, or configurate with the Association of University Teachers or any other union. It is still having "constructive talks" with the AUT but inevitably there are divisions within the union between the HE and the FE staff.
One agenda sees an eventual splitting off of the union, with one section going in with Unison and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, and another section going in with the AUT. Keeping everyone on board will certainly require leadership.
Concern about losing so many general secretaries has led the national executive committee to look at the procedure. They have tightened up the job specification to make it clearer. They considered whether they should interview the candidates and then make a recommendation to the members. Or they wondered if the job specification and the person specification should go out with the ballot papers, so members could look at the two together as they marked their cross. In the end they decided to do none of these things and the membership will judge unaided.
With a new government, and new union leadership, and at least the promise of better things to come for FE, this choice could be the most crucial one of all. Now NATFHE has a chance to make things happen.
Nominations for the post closed this week.