Democracy Congress – Two steps forward, one step back?


Saturday’s Democracy Congress saw a mobilisation by the right-wing ‘Independent Broad Left’ (IBL) to block rule changes proposed by the UCU’s Democracy Commission intended to improve accountability of the union’s leadership.

The Democracy Commission – and this Congress – were called to address the causes of the crisis in the union that was triggered in the 2018 USS strike, when first, the will of branch delegates was ignored by the union’s Higher Education Committee (then-IBL-dominated) and by the then-General Secretary Sally Hunt. Infamously, criticism of the General Secretary at Congress was averted by a walkout of officials.

Two key questions arising from this crisis remain unresolved:

  • can a sitting General Secretary be removed promptly by members when they act contrary to their interests (i.e. how are they accountable to members)? and
  • by what democratic mechanism may multi-institution strikes be run, on a day-to-day basis, by striking members themselves?

Democracy and accountability will become obvious and dominant questions as members in HE in particular take further strike action in the new year. First, our members need to have confidence that their General Secretary will negotiate hard from a position of knowing she is accountable to active striking members. Second, members themselves must be able to make important decisions to coordinate and focus strike action effectively.

Indeed the day before the Democracy Congress, a special Higher Education Sector Conference, led by striking branches themselves, took bold steps to plan escalating action for the Spring and Summer Terms.

A majority, but rarely two-thirds

Although nearly all of the proposals were supported by a majority of delegates, very few achieved the two-thirds majority they required for rule changes to bring them into effect.

A procedure regulating how Congress can be curtailed and a three-term limit for General Secretaries were agreed, but important measures to enhance members’ control over the leadership by creating elected Deputy General Secretary posts, and allowing branches or regions to trigger an investigation of the actions of the General Secretary, did not get the necessary majority. Also shelved was a proposal to put strikers in control of their disputes through the creation of multi-institution Dispute Committees made up of striking branches and those in dispute.

This was a setback for anyone who invested in the Democracy Commission when it was established in response to the shut-down of the 2018 Congress. It was clear from the outset that the IBL had mobilised heavily for this Congress, and used their votes consistently against every change designed to give members more control over the decision-making structures of the union and those who make them. This faction of the UCU is opposed to a member-led union and is committed to blocking changes to the existing structures and procedures which would give members more control.

Although they have been routed in the big HE pre-92 branches – which is why Manchester, Oxford, and Cambridge have grown, democratised and got over 50% in the last HE ballots – the IBL still have influence elsewhere. The title of their handout ‘UCU Agenda’ (UCU Bureaucratic Control) could not be more apposite.

With left activists in many branches busy mobilising for a Labour vote in the General Election, many did not send delegates. Compared to a Labour victory, this Congress might not have seemed important. But in 2018 we learned the hard way that structures and accountability matter immensely.

Other delegates who voted with the IBL against some of the proposals may have believed that since we now have a new rank-and-file General Secretary, the changes proposed by the Democracy Commission were unnecessary. It is true that Jo Grady has shown exemplary support for members when they want to fight. She put her shoulder behind the HE balloting effort and spent the eight days of strikes touring the country visiting picket lines and speaking at rallies.

It is also the case that compared to two years ago we now have a left-led HEC (with a large number of UCU Left members and supporters elected) which is more committed to action by members and has consistently put forward a strategy that can win.

Democracy and accountability for the future

#NoCapitulationHowever, the potential for a split between a full-time leadership and ordinary union members remains. This is not about individual personalities. Anyone who is in an elected position and has led strikes knows the pressure they are under to resolve a dispute. This pressure is even more powerful in the case of a national dispute. There is also pressure from unelected full-time officials whose focus on finding ‘exit’ strategies can often lead to outcomes short of what continued action can achieve.

These pressures can only get stronger as the current HE disputes escalate. There is only one force capable of stopping a repeat of 2018 and a compromise deal far short of what is possible – the active, mobilised membership. This is why it was a serious mistake to for some who quite rightly were angered about the outcome of the USS dispute two years ago to oppose the proposal for setting up multi-institution strike or dispute committees. We need structures which ensure that it is always the members who are taking action, picketing and losing money – not standing committees or Carlow Street – who can take the crucial decisions on the direction of their dispute. This happens in practice at a local level – but strikes at a national level are currently handed over to HEC, FEC and the officials.

Nevertheless, healthy democracy is not conjured up by perfect rules and structures. A democratic deficit will not be corrected by technical fixes. As last year’s events around the USS dispute showed, the desire for greater democratic control over the union arises out of members’ activity. So while rule changes that enhance members’ control over the union are important, it is ultimately the level of membership involvement in the union’s struggles that really counts.

There was hardly any mention of the current USS and Four Fights disputes at Saturday’s Congress, although this dispute had been discussed at length the previous day. But the question of democracy cannot be separated from the battles in which we are currently engaged. During the eight days of strike action in HE, many branches had regular open strike committee meetings (sometimes called “strike assemblies”) to discuss and plan their action. It is through such mechanisms that the ideas and creativity of members to solve problems, plan initiatives and make their action more effective come to the fore.

But it is also those meetings that allow members and reps to evaluate the potential for further action. Thus it was strike meetings at UCL, Liverpool and Dundee that debated motions about strike days which were then formally voted on by branch committees and proposed to Friday’s HE sector conference as amendments. Already we are seeing a nascent member-led democracy in the disputes, pushing existing structures into action.

Existing structures and moving forward

UCL Strike CommitteeWhat are the existing mechanisms for members to assert democratic control in disputes? They depend on the calling of a special Sector Conference like the USS HE Sector Conference (HESC) on Friday. Calling such conferences is slow, and conferences are expensive. A multi-institution strike committee could be much more flexible, quickly called and streamlined to key questions not lengthy motions.

An obvious question concerns who gets to vote. According to convention, striking post-92 branch reps were not supposed to vote on Friday, because the HESC was called over the USS disputes. However, on many issues, like the calling of further action, it is obviously reasonable for post-92 reps to have a vote. This is because the union is committed to joint action, and therefore post-92 reps with ballot mandates would reasonably expect to take the action voted on! Meanwhile, at that same meeting, branch reps in USS branches that were neither reballoting nor striking were allowed to have a vote! There is a mismatch between striking branches and the democratic delegate structures.

This is not an HE-only problem. The same issue would apply to the Further Education strikes of 2018, when some branches were striking but others not. Our democratic structures are imperfect, but we need to use them.

But we cannot afford to wait for formal structures to be set up. We will need to create our own rank-and-file delegate body to link up local strike committees if we are to win the HE disputes. If we cannot do this through official means, we must create our own unofficial, mechanisms. The moral authority of strikers is not to be ignored, as the #NoCapitulation moment identified. Woe betide any HEC member or General Secretary who refuses to accept the will of mobilised strikers! So if we cannot make our reps accountable in rule, let us make them accountable in practice!

So the outcome of the Democracy Conference is: we need more democracy! In Higher Education, striking members and those reballoting need to get organised.

First, colleagues will need to work hard to win the next round of reballots in HE branches. Solidarity, twinning and branch-to-branch support across regions are crucial to getting the vote out.

Second, in early February we will know the outcome of the reballots and we need a national strike coordinating meeting. We can plan creatively towards fostering joint collective organising, from branch-to-branch Skype linkups to joint physical meetings in cities during the next round of strikes.

Margot Hill (Croydon College)
London Region Secretary
– standing for UCU Vice President

2 Replies to “Democracy Congress – Two steps forward, one step back?”

  1. So the “Democracy Congress” was defeated by the democratic votes of the delegates. Ironic, that!

  2. The UCU Left need to remember that their candidate for GS was soundly beaten in the election. We can’t allow a minority pressure group to undermine the democratic will of the union. At the same time, we need to maintain solidarity during the dispute, and the UCU Left campaign to unseat and undermine the exec during the last dispute was far from helpful.

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