11 March 2019

Elections, ‘factions’ and building a fighting union

UCU members at CIC about to vote

UCU members at CIC about to vote

After the resignation of Sally Hunt, due to ill health, UCU have open nominations for the fourth GS election in its 13-year history. UCU has just finished one set of elections where the combined left vote of 64% saw off the right-wing candidate. This is the second VP election in a row which the left has won. Both elections mark a shift to the left within the union.

The question for all those within UCU who wish to see the forward march of the left continue is – how do we do so?

This shift has been brought about by the impact of the marketisation of the post 16 education sector. A sector that once afforded good wages and working conditions now has the highest levels of casualisation compared to any other sector. Pay in FE is the lowest within any of the education sectors – by some way.

This neoliberal assault on education has also made those who work and study within it question the values at the heart of this attack. The cuts to research, the ‘stack ‘em high sell ‘em cheap’ ethos, the narrowing of the curriculum to suit the needs of employment and turning further and higher education institutions into exam factories.

These educational and conditions of service attacks have led to UCU members becoming involved with many national and local disputes over the past decade, taking industrial action more than most other unions during this period.

Whilst members have always responded magnificently when called upon to fight the majority of the leadership of the union did not match this fighting spirit.

The #nocapitulation moment during USS when a successful thousand strong protest outside UCU HQ took place to prevent the leadership sanctioning a rotten deal revealed how detached the leadership were from the members. The action which successfully stopped full-time officers, led and orchestrated by Matt Wadupp, from blocking motions by wrecking congress, was another important milestone in marginalising the right within the union.

This fighting spirit is still very much alive. The HE pay ballot, whilst not getting over the threshold, nevertheless had a vote 75% of members in favour of action on a 41% turnout. That’s tens of thousands of members in HE who voted to strike for better pay, against casualisation and for ending the gender pay gap.

In FE there are 20 colleges that have balloted or are about to be, over pay and conditions. These colleges will take further action on 20, 21st and 22nd of March.  This campaign follows that of last year where many colleges won significant deals at a local level.  The campaign is also having a significant impact on raising FE profile for more funding in the next government spending review.

How do we engage more of our members?

Over 80 thousand members did not vote in the VP and NEC election. This is a real problem we must rectify.

Members need a leadership – and a General Secretary – who sees their role as defending education, pay (and pensions) and conditions, develop a strategy involving strikes to mobilise them in that defence and is prepared to see it through to the end.

HE is in an enormous crisis of borrowing. The Times newspaper reported in January that universities had borrowed more than £10bn on the expectation that high student fees and numbers would continue for years, backed up by the Treasury’s “student loan book”. They budgeted on £9k+ fees for ever.

But this borrowing coincides with another even bigger borrowing. The Treasury has amassed a student loan debt, expected to total £90bn by next year, with no end in sight. The Tories are increasingly realising that their own deregulated market system is too expensive. Something has to give. A review for the Tory Government by a city banker, James Augur, is likely to propose cutting tuition fees to £7,500 or less – not to make education accessible to working class kids, but to cut the cost to the Treasury.

Vice Chancellors had the shock of their life when union members struck for 14 days, shut classes and fought them to a standstill in the USS dispute. Ever since they have tried to regain control. They are certain to use the threat of bankruptcy and redundancies to intimidate staff and try to exact their revenge on the union.

There are around 30,000 Further, Adult and Prison education members in UCU. I suspect the turnout in union elections amongst these members are among the lowest. This reflects the esteem those working in the sector feel they are regarded in by society as a whole. Around 3.5 m students attend FE. FE is the largest 16-18 provision. Many in FE feel that their voice is simply not taken seriously within the union, and with some reason. With notable exception of Jo McNeil, you hardly heard anything about FE in the VP election and when we did the candidates revealed a very shallow understanding of the issues that FE members face.

This must change if UCU is going to be regarded by FE members as their union.

This election we want to see regular emails and social media going out to every member asking them to vote. UCU has never organised a GTVO campaign for an internal election. It must do this time.

Another key issue that would begin to encourage more members to participate in internal elections is to stop playing up supposed ‘factional’ strife in our union. This is not a real problem facing UCU. When there are real differences, let us debate them.

In his opening blog announcing that he was intending to stand for the post of General Secretary, Matt Wadupp argues that the factions in the unions are a real problem and that he can rise above them and unite the union. I wonder if Matt was blushing when he wrote this? From someone who has been the Alastair Campbell of UCU and Sally Hunt’s campaign manager in all her GS election campaigns this is quite a statement to make.

In the same blog he boasts that he was witch-hunted in the Daily Mail for his role in ‘masterminding’ the USS campaign. So was I for my role in the FE strikes that were taking place at the same time as the USS dispute. However, it was Matt and his GS election teams who redbaited UCU left for being led by a bunch of Trots. We warned at the time this was not only sectarian but will give succor to the employers and the likes of the Daily Mail – First they came for…….

During the Blair years open debate and disagreement was purged from the Labour Party and trade union conferences on the grounds that it looked bad.  Everything had to be stage managed. Dissent was crushed. The ‘anti-faction’ consensus is a hangover from this approach. The ‘not in front of the children’ approach must be ended. People must not be allowed to hide their disagreements by smearing opponents as being part of a ‘faction’, and by doing so make legitimate alternative views invalid and closing down debate.

Does being ‘independent’ allow you to be more effective?

‘Faction’ bashing unfortunately not only comes from the right but some on the left engage in it too. Vicky Blake in her VP campaign made it one of her central campaigning themes. Some on the left in the union believe that proclaiming their independence as often as possible makes them more electable. This is because they think this demonstrates are they free thinkers who don’t ‘toe any party line’.

What is striking is that many of those who confess to being ‘independent’ are members or supporters of political parties. Matt Waddup has always voted Labour since he was 18, UCUPresident Vicky Knight is a member of the Communist Party, Vicky Blake is also member of the Labour Party. We should not be ashamed of political affiliations and hide them we should be open about them.

There is no evidence that suggests that being independent allows for more free thought. This idea is based on a complete right-wing caricature of those who are active in political parties.

In fact the whole concept of a politically, non-aligned independent is a right wing one fostered and perpetuated throughout history by every ruling class outlet and reinforced within every curriculum. Its fine for the employers and their political representatives to be engage in ‘factions’ of one kind or another. In fact, it is positively encouraged to do so but not for the likes of us. It’s not surprising that this is the case because they are aware of the danger of encouraging the ‘likes of us’ to get involved in ‘factions’.

As for the idea that being independent allows the individual to put forward unique ideas which are not tarnished by political dogma – again, I see no evidence to support this. We are shaped by our surroundings. Ideas do not come out of nowhere. Too often those who proclaim independent thought provide ideas which are a mish-mash of other people’s ideas, usually unacknowledged and usually leading to unclear thinking and rehashed political strategies.

The importance of an organised left

It is important that people who share similar ideals meet, discuss and act together to pursue a common cause. That is why working-class people joined Trade Unions in the first place. Capitalism socialises production. Acting collectively is the only way that working people can advance their condition. In a trade union whilst most join because of this understanding there are many different views as to how best to achieve this. It is for this reason people set up different organisations within unions to try and convince members of their particular vision.

I read with interest a recent blog by a UCU Left supporter who explained that she aligned herself with UCU left when she was on the NEC because there was no one else resisting the bureaucracy. She goes on to explain that there was never any attempt to discipline her if she disagreed with a particular stance and voted a different way. Indeed, UCU left has no provision to do so.

However, it is important to stress that whilst there are many occasions that UCU left members disagree the vast majority of the time we vote together. This is not undemocratic or unthinking. The point of a union is that you debate and discuss and then after a vote you act upon the decision made. The picket line was introduced to ensure that the democratic decisions arrived at by the majority are adhered to.

The point of UCU left has been to try and convince members of the need for a fighting union to prevent the further erosion or members’ conditions. It has been one of the most successful organised lefts in the unions in the past decade and possibly longer.

When we launched UCU left the foundation of our approach was to argue that the fight for better pay and conditions must be inextricably linked to the fight to defend post 16 education. If we are defending jobs we are defending education too. We did not see the fight for pay and conditions as being separate from the fight for an inclusive education sector. This approach is best summed up by the slogan ‘the conditions that teachers teach in are the conditions that students learn in’.

It was UCU left supporters who came up with the idea of the Cradle to the Grave conference and took motions to conference twice to ensure that it happened. It is UCU left supporters who have written education policy for the union like that contained in the public University and the FE manifesto, of which many recommendations are now Labour Party policy.

On international issues such as Palestine it was UCU Left supporters who campaigned to ensure that the union holds one of the most progressive policies, supporting the Palestinian people through supporting a boycott of Israeli Institutions. UCU left members didn’t hold a single view on Palestine and we all accepted these differences.

It is the tireless and fearless anti-racist campaigning of UCU left supporters such as VP elect Nita Sangera that makes UCU left such an effective and well respected organisation.

Electorally we have shown that being a part of an organised left is not a constraint to winning elections. Throughout the union’s history UCU left supporters have at a minimum held around 40% of the seats and at best half. In the last election those standing on a UCU left slate won 14 out of the 34 seats.

But most importantly UCU left through its networks has managed to ensure that national and local action has got off the ground. The first coordinated strike action this century was when UCU FE, NUT (as it was then) and the PCS took coordinated strike action over pay in 2008. In March 2011 we took the first joint FE/HE (both pre and post 92) strike in UCU history which ‘broke the log jam’ as John McDonnell put it when speaking at UCU congress that year, that led to the biggest strike in British history over pensions in November 2011.

The recent USS dispute would not have got off the ground if were not for UCU left supporters fighting to get a ballot off the ground with a recommendation to strike.

It is through our networks that real solidarity has been demonstrated through raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for those who have taken sustained strike action.

Countless lobbies of parliament over ESOL and pay as well as demonstrations over defending our students from cuts in EMA and fees.

Not all were successful, and a much bigger UCU network would help prevent the backtracking by the leadership which has often sold disputes short. But many actions were successful.

It is important to point out that the Independent Broad left (IBL) opposed all these initiatives every step of the way. The IBL was set up as response to the launch of UCU left.   It is a completely reactive organisation. It rarely puts forward initiatives or ideas on education or industrial action.  It sees its role in the union as one in which it can act to stop any ideas of the left getting too wide spread. It is this kind of organisation, deservedly, that does give organised groups within a union a bad name.

The case for an organised left within UCU (in all unions) is a strong one. Without the left being organised in UCU the cause of a genuinely radical progressive trade union that calls upon and gives confidence to its members to fight for a truly liberating post 16 education sector will be far more difficult to achieve. The real problem for UCU is not that there are too many ‘factions’ but not a big enough organised left. We need to build a much wider and more influential organised left if we are to continue the gains that we have made.

This is why I’m one of thousands in this union who is glad to see that Jo McNeil is standing for the GS election. She is someone who combines a radical vision of education with a powerful fighting spirit. If Jo became the next GS of UCU this would be another important step to making this vision a reality.

Sean Vernell, UCU NEC

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