Friday, April 23, 2004

FSB - on the sidelines?

During the 1975 referendum, the Confederation of British Industry was a key player in the "yes" campaign. Small business did not have a voice. At the time, the Federation of Small Businesses was only a year old - too young to be a "player". In the forthcoming campaign, however, the FSB - now a mature organisation - could and should be a key player.

On the other hand, however, there are worrying signs that the Federation has been "captured". At its annual conference last month - with a referendum on elected regional assemblies in the offing, and no action having been taken by the FSB - Joanne Warren, a Leicestershire member, proposed a motion to disband the regionalisation programme.

Yet, despite obvious strong feelings on the issue, the national policy committee decided to take a "neutral stance" and not offer an opinion. It was left to the ordinary members to make the case, with the motion proposer sweeping to victory. The branch vote was 89,332 for, with 19,130 against, with 144 personal votes cast for the motion against a mere 31 dissenters - a massive 82 percent oppsed to regionalisation.

This was, of course, before the EU constitutional referendum had been announced, but there was also another motion on the agenda, calling on the government not to sign the constitutional treaty. This time, the policy committee, in the form of Brian Prime, did support the motion, and it was carried by 104,178 to 5310 - a massive 95 percent victory.

Despite this, there has been a stunning silence from the FSB hierarchy, and the only measurable action it seems to have taken since is to drop its long-standing anti-EU columnist, Richard North, from its members' magazine, First Voice - his latest article having mysteriously disappeared from the latest issue.

Thus, while FSB members have made their views known, there is a very real risk that the hierarchy - which includes known New Labour sympathisers - will seek to ensure that the Federation sits out the referendum campaign, keeping silent on the issue.

The question is, will its members allow the Federation to remain on the sidelines, as it is doing with the regionalisation referendums? Watch this space.

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