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

NEC report: The General Secretary Must Be Accountable To Members

UCU Congress 2018 Voting

Emergency National Executive Report 1 March 2019

The General Secretary Must Be Accountable To Members

UCU National Executive Committee (NEC) met on Friday 1 March as an extra-ordinary meeting due to the resignation of the General Secretary, Sally Hunt, on health grounds. NEC unanimously thanked Sally for her leadership in both the formation of the union and its development over the past thirteen years. NEC also wished her well with her illness and hoped she would be able to manage her health to ensure she retained a high quality of life. It is very fortunate that we live in a society which benefits from a fantastic National Health Service.

UCU Left wishes to see a united single left candidate stand for election. We welcome discussions with all members interesting in standing for the GS position with a genuine desire to ensure the agreed left candidate has a maximum chance of winning this most important seat in the union.

Winning the seat for the left is a key part of creating a transparent, accessible, accountable leadership which will bring about the member led, campaigning union we all want.

We have an opportunity to transform our UCU. We have to rise to the challenge.


NEC was presented with a set of proposals on the process and timetable for the election of a new GS. Rules of UCU permit any UCU member or employed staff member of UCU to nominate themselves for election. These will be the same rules used for the previous three elections in UCU.

More problematic, however, is the timetable for the election. The timetable presented was to ensure a new candidate is elected prior to Congress in May 2019. However, the most significant argument over the accountability of officials and officers the union has ever had has been ongoing since the walkout of staff and the IBL majority on the NEC at Congress 2018. Since then, the Democracy Commission (created by Congress in response to the crisis) has included discussions of how we can formulate mechanisms for the recall of the General Secretary to ensure member-led democracy is strengthened within the union.

The timetable proposed at NEC circumvents and frustrates these discussions. A decision by a lay member to give up their job for five years is not one many can make on a whim. Yet the timetable ensures little time for any lesser mortal who has not known about this announcement weeks in advance to contemplate such a decision.

As a result, two sets of proposals were put forward to amend the regulations for the General Secretary elections. The first was to delay the election, and importantly the appointment, of the new General Secretary until a mechanism for recall had been passed at Congress. This matters because it has been previously argued by officials that any changes to the rules governing the accountability of the GS cannot apply to a sitting GS and will only apply to a future GS.

If this interpretation now was applied again to the future GS, protecting this person from recall, this would be an outrageous undermining of the Democracy Commission!

The Chair employed a classic, undemocratic manoeuvre by using her position as Chair to order business in a way which ensured that her supporters, i.e. the IBL, would not be seen to be voting against recall. This was done by taking the vote on the paper put forward by the bureaucracy first and then ruling that, if passed, the motions attempting to amend that paper would fall.

As a result both amending motions in this section fell without even being voted on.

The new GS’s contract and recall

The second set of proposals required that the GS’s contract of employment be modified to ensure that, if Congress agreed a rule for recall of the GS, it would apply to this new contract. Since the Democracy Commission is examining the potential for such a rule, which would go to Congress after the new GS had been elected, resolving this potential problem now was very important.

Without such a clause in the contract, the risk is that the new incumbent could potentially argue that the dismissal was unfair. Since candidates would sign up to this contract as part of the process of standing for election, it made sense for the NEC to ensure that all candidates agreed to the recall principle – even if there was no mechanism yet in the union’s rules.

The lead official advising the NEC reported legal advice stating that it was in fact possible to implement a recall mechanism using the existing contract.

Here again, the Chair refused to allow a vote on the proposals by suggesting that the passing of the unamended contract of employment meant the amendments fell. Again the vote to accept the unamended employment was 26 for and 21 against.

Let us be clear. This does not mean that the new UCU General Secretary will be protected from recall, but it does create ambiguity where none was needed.

Any ordinary member who was a fly on the wall in the meeting would have wondered why on earth did the Right of the NEC vote not to accept this motion as it cost nothing and would have simply confirmed the legal advice and protected the legal position of the union!

And it also means that all candidates for GS now need to be asked the following questions:

Do you accept that you should be accountable to members through a proper recall procedure in the union’s rules if Congress decides one is needed? Will you accept a change of terms of employment in your contract if this is said to be necessary, allowing for a recall mechanism to apply to you?

For all the claims that the IBL are not a faction they do indeed vote en-bloc remarkably consistently when directed by the chair!

Election conduct

It is to be expected that paid officials of the union and lay members of the union will stand. It is essential therefore that no candidate is given preferential treatment during the election.

In UNISON a major argument has broken out due to senior officials instructing employees of the union to campaign on their behalf.

Proposals to prevent this bullying of staff were also put forward by UCU Left members. Here the IBL voted with the UCU Left leading to a unanimous vote to prevent staff being disciplined if they refuse to act in a partisan way in the elections.

Similarly, candidates who are staff members or officers of the union will also be prevented from presenting UCU’s publicity in their name, with immediate effect.

Looking to the future

The next General Secretary will be crucially important to the future development of the union at a time when marketisation is fast progressing, when the membership of UCU has simultaneously grown and, crucially, at a time when a substantial minority of members indicates that a militant mood exists for action against marketisation.

The left in the union has a responsibility to ensure we have a candidate who can create a member-led union over the next five years. They need to be a candidate who can stand up to both the right wing of our union lay leadership and the trade union bureaucracy.

Motions text

On delaying the GS election

NEC thanks Sally Hunt for her service and sends best wishes.

NEC notes:

  1. The Democracy Commission was tasked by our sovereign body Congress (2018) with introducing recall mechanism and greater accountability of officials including the General Secretary
  2. The Commission is currently drawing up relevant recommendations and will be putting these to Congress 2019. The Commission was informed that the staff union UNITE would likely dispute changes to the current incumbent’s contract, and it was agreed therefore that a recall mechanism would come into effect at a change of contract.
  3. Holding an election on the current proposal would create a delay of five years in the introduction of recall.

NEC believes such a delay undermines the wishes of Congress 2018 and thus undermines our democracy which may create discord.

NEC resolves not to implement any election process that would undermine and render ineffective the introduction of recall mechanisms if voted for by Congress 2019.

On Democracy Commission and GS election


  1. Democracy Commission’ specific, time-limited purview, mandated by Congress 2018 to make recommendations for branch delegates to decide at Congress 2019 and Special Congress (November 2019).
  2. DC is mandated to recommend changes including aspects of the GS role, such as an inter-election recall mechanism.
  3. DC may recommend shorter terms of office.
  4. Changes agreed by Congress/Special Congress must only effect subsequent GS contracts.
  5. Pursuing a GS election before Congress delays any agreed changes by 5 years.
  6. GS election rules Schedule B provide up to 12 months calling notice.

NEC agrees:

  1. Pre-empting outcomes of democratic debate at Congress would endanger confidence in UCU’s commitment to upholding sovereign Congress decisions.
  2. UCU should elect its GS after Congress 2019 votes upon DC recommendations regarding the role, terms and conditions.
  3. NEC should meet following Congress to agree finalised changes to the GS role.

Both motions fell by 26 to 21 with 1 abstention, following passage of section of report

Motion ensuring recall mechanism applies to incoming GS

NEC agrees to amend the new contract of the GS in NEC1215 to explicitly ensure that, should Congress agree a rule change that establishes a formal recall mechanism, this mechanism would trigger the issuing of notice by the President on behalf of the NEC, under clause (i) of the Termination of Employment section of the contract.

NEC further resolves that, should the above solution be not deemed workable, to add a new clause (iii) to the Termination of Employment section of the contract. This would clarify that, provided that a rule for the recall of GS were triggered under UCU rules, the GS would be suspended from office and given six months’ notice to allow the election to be conducted.

Motion fell 26 to 21, following passage of section of report


Add new bullet points:

  1. UCU staff members involved in the administration of the General Secretary election will act in a non-partisan way to all candidates and must not be asked for preferential treatment by any candidate or their supporters. Any member of staff found to be electioneering or showing favour to one particular candidate in the course of their normal employment will face formal disciplinary action. Any staff member refusing to act in a partisan way will be protected from any disciplinary action.
  2. During the period of the election, starting with NEC 1st March 2019, UCU will ensure equal access to media and public pronouncements for all candidates. Any statement released by UCU in the name of any staff member standing as a candidate will count as one of their allocated emails.

Motion passed unanimously