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The Musicians Union picks its next general secretary

Activist BEN LUNN looks at the three contenders to lead Britain’s 30,000-strong Musicians Union

Naomi Pohl

The current deputy general secretary Naomi Pohl has put her hat in the ring for the leadership of the Musicians Union (MU). This has been met with wide support from across the union, with backing from notable figures like Rab Noakes and the Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire.

Though referred to by some as the “continuity candidate,” Pohl is very firm in her assertion that she will bring a new vision to the union that aims to incorporate the skills and energy of members from the top of the EC down to the grassroots level.

In our discussion, she raised the need for leadership and union activism to go beyond mere committees, saying: “We need to look for ways in which this can be utilised, either through specific campaigns or new initiatives.”

Calling herself the “21st-century candidate,” Pohl recognises the need for the union to modernise and to build its connections with grassroots session and gigging musicians who are drastically underrepresented at present.

She also highlights music education, arts funding and equality and diversity as vital issues on which the union needs to campaign. If elected, she promises a new music education campaign focusing on greater rights and better conditions for teachers and the need for equal access to music tuition: “This is often referred to as the talent pipeline — if this is unequal the profession will remain unequal also.”

On arts funding she says: “We need to return to this area of campaigning, as it is the core which funds and pays for most musicians.” She adds: “Having fought to improve things for musicians during the pandemic, the need to return to this fight is all the more important, so we can bring stability back.”

On equality and diversity, Pohl pledges to make the union more reflective of its diverse membership while also utilising the skills and concerns of a wider range of MU activists.

Morris Stemp

Morris Stemp is a long-standing campaigner and former MU rep. Like all good union activists, he has a tried-and-tested record and was active fighting for many musicians within their differing workplaces across northern England for a decade, now in a national role covering Britain for seven years in orchestras.

His focus differs from Pohl, he sees the key areas to fight around are reform — re-evaluating the union structures, the activity of the union and looking at how the union can better support its members and officials.

Stemp takes issue with increasing dues which he argues there was little to no obvious reason to do, knocking morale and leading to discontent among the membership.

The core of his campaign is on the need to make the union effective for the grassroots level, namely in our workplaces — venues, orchestras, session work and so on. He added: “It is good to talk to Parliament, but we see more being done when working with our members directly.”

He argues the current union structures are restrictive for campaigning: “Our process to choose our general secretary is currently a five-minute presentation to a region, then 10 minutes of questions. How can you explore the problems and aims of candidates in such a limited time?” He believes changing the model would make the union more democratic.

Having won nominations from the north of England and Scotland and North of Ireland regions — my own region — he also is firmly on the ballot: “Had I not won there, I should have packed it in.”

Stephen Brown

Stephen Brown is a songwriter, guitarist and long-standing trade union activist. He’s campaigned and worked for Unison, Unite, the CWU and MU. His work as an MU official has predominantly been supporting Midlands members in all parts of the industry including the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra which is on his patch.

Working in the Midlands, he sees a very different vision for the MU and of a musician’s lot to the committees of the union and the other candidates. About 46 per cent of his regional membership failed to get anything from the self-employment income support scheme.

“Previously many musicians would supplement their artistic desires with a small job, then just gigging once regular work was won, now we see professional musicians who have worked for years dropping out of employment outside of music.” He added: “This is a direct result of the failure to support musicians during this pandemic.”

This, combined with the various attacks on working conditions and trade unions since 2008, means the MU is at a crossroads, says Brown. “As a union we have some of the most expensive subs — the question is do we keep increasing them, while losing members, or find ways to better utilise members at the grassroots?”

A key concern for Brown has been the failure to address and campaign for teachers effectively and he emphasises the importance of addressing this, as ultimately any form of music industry is decided by the shape of our education system.

He has also been concerned with the overemphasis on lobbying, arguing that although it is important, politicians will often say the right thing — but then fail to provide actual help.

Brown argues there is a lot to be learnt from the ascendency of Sharon Graham in Unite, as it shows many concerns within other unions are also present the MU. “The campaigning of the union needs to change, to develop its activists more, to focus on local and regional issues and on core matters like pay.”

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