UCU is not affiliated to any political party however the outcome of the Labour leadership contest is a concern for every UCU member. Jeremy Corbyn’s (JC) exciting leadership challenge has articulated what millions of people think and feel about politics in Britain today.
Whatever the outcome of the leadership contest (and I hope JC wins), politics in Britain will not be the same for years to come.
Second Chance Education.
I’m lucky enough to teach in JC’s constituency. He has always been very supportive of the Further and Adult Education sector. He has turned up to our picket lines to lend his support on every one of the seventeen occasions that we have had to take strike action over the last fourteen years to defend the sector. On numerous occasions I have spoken on the same platform as him on a number of issues but most regularly about education. What has been clear to me is that Jeremy gets what second chance education is all about – a fundamental social democratic value.
Second chance education (and, for many adult students in his constituency, a first chance) is about allowing those students who, for whatever reason, did not achieve what they were capable of at school and are given another attempt at experiencing the potential of the liberating experience of education.
This is why the Tories hate the sector and want to destroy it. They don’t see why people should have a second chance. For them it is about the survival of the fittest; those who can’t keep up, tough, it is their own fault, they don’t deserve another chance to better their lives through education.
Of course they do not apply the same values to their own children. The sons and daughters of the wealthy don’t have second chances they have infinite chances. Wreck a business start another, wreck an economy, and with it the lives of millions of people, no problem, move on to the next. Their mistakes are simply put down to misfortune, accident or youthful exuberance.
For the Tories and their billionaire backers, education for their children is about educating them to be leaders of industry and of the institutions of the state. The education of the working class in contrast is seen by them as progressing to a certain level of ‘functionality’, not in order to lead, but to be another ‘cog in the machine’.
Having someone like JC as the leader of the Labour party, who instinctively understands what working class education is all about and has consistently campaigned against class based elitism within education, would be a huge leap forward for the sector.
A clear alternative
For thirty years or more we have been told by all mainstream political parties, consistently reinforced by most media, that there is no alternative to market driven politics and economics. Even if there were, we were told, the electorate wouldn’t vote for it. Those of us, like JC, who campaigned for a different political and economic vision were ridiculed and marginalised. Often labelled as cranks and extremists who were out of touch with ordinary working people.
Well not anymore. JC’s campaign has fired the imagination of millions of people across Britain. People have flocked to the rallies in support of his leadership bid in their thousands and listened to the alternative to austerity and they like what they have heard.
The establishment have united in denouncing JC’s campaign as ‘mad’, ‘a throwback to the 80s’ and ‘dangerous’. These attacks on him reflect their fear. The media and mainstream politicians have peddled a ‘common sense’ that we are in an era of austerity in which there is no alternative to pay, pensions and job cuts. That we have to accept widening inequality and the dismantling of the welfare state. It is this ‘common sense’ that has been exposed to be a pack of lies, made up by a small minority of very wealthy people to enrich their lives.
This is why we should welcome JC’s challenge for the leadership of the Labour Party. His campaign can allow us to construct a new ‘common sense’ based around the collective values of Socialism as opposed to the competitive, dog eat dog values of the employers and their fawning politicians.
‘The radical centre’
Another reason why JC’s campaign is having a resonance is because he is different. One of the reasons young people cite as why they support JC is because he is not like other politicians. There is a real loathing of typical mainstream politicians. Vacuous, plastic and manufactured; politicians who clearly have no political views of their own and passively accept the prevailing orthodoxies.
Andy Burnham, despite claiming to be the candidate that represents Labour’s working class roots, couldn’t even bring himself to vote against the Tories’ benefits cuts. Yvette Cooper, interviewed in the Observer, described her politics as being in the ‘radical centre’. What a ridiculous phrase. What does it mean? By placing yourself as part of the ‘centre’ you are automatically admitting that your politics is neither one thing nor the other. It is a bit of everything. A dictionary definition of the word ‘radical’ means ‘a person who advocates thorough or complete political reform’. Neither of which Cooper is advocating because she locates herself in the centre ground of politics i.e. the status quo. It is this kind of silly spin that people so easily see through and are thoroughly fed up with.
Corbyn’s campaign has made clear that being political and a politician does not have to mean being narrow and image-obsessed clones like the Burnhams, Coopers and Kendalls.
You can be a politician and believe what you say.
It’s the protest, stupid…
Cooper in the Observer article says that she went on ‘loads of protests in the 80s but they changed nothing’. She goes on to argue that it is only through electing a Labour government that change happens. Clearly a cursory glance at history shows that this is not true. The struggles of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Suffragettes and the Poll Tax protests, which heralded the end of Thatcher, to name but a few, were instrumental in bringing about real change that benefited working people. Of course governments have enshrined these changes in law but only because there was pressure from movements in the first place.
Movements will also be important if JC wins. Financiers and employers in league with newspaper editors and politicians will conspire to bring him down. The experience of Syriza in Greece demonstrates what kind of pressures will be brought to bear on a government elected to take on the rich and powerful.
This is why Corbyn’s vision of a planned economy, a world without wars or child poverty and where the majority of people have a genuine say in their destinies will only be brought about and sustained through a politic rooted in struggle. The only way to defend a left wing radical government from such attacks is by using the platform that the parliamentary arena affords to build bigger and more dynamic movements.
Corbyn’s campaign has been ten years and more in the making. The protests against corporate power, war, racism, climate change and austerity, all of which he has played an active role in, have laid the basis for a new common sense to be formed. For this new consensus to be fully realised there will need to be more strikes, demonstrations and occupations against injustice. Without these, this new common sense will be still-born.
What JC’s campaign ultimately has shown is that the political classes are out of touch and are incapable of providing the political representation that is necessary. His bid for the Labour leadership has shown that radical left wing ideas are not the preserve of a few diehard activists but they have a broad appeal.
The call made by UCU and other unions for a conference to discuss the crisis of political representation, that brings together all those inside and outside the LP, is as urgent as ever.
We need to ensure that whoever wins the leadership contest, we can sustain and root this new consensus within the trade unions and communities across Britain .
Sean Vernell, UCU Coordinating Secretary City and Islington College and National negotiator.