The second wave of austerity: putting the defence of post-16 education at the heart of the resistance.

Adult ed lobby of Parliament Esol student, Mandy Brown  Secretary London Region UCU, , Meg Hiller MP, Ian Ashman, Chair London AoC  and Jeremy Corbyn MP

The disappointing re-election of a Conservative government signals further onslaughts on services and working conditions. There must now be a call to arms to the whole of the trade union and labour movement to come together to fight the second wave of austerity that is without doubt coming our way. The Tory coalition’s cuts led to the loss of one million public sector jobs and the dismantling of many services that millions more depended upon. Despite the UK being the sixth richest country in the world, poverty has increased and one million people now depend on food banks.

However, what the general election also revealed is that millions of people not only hate Tory austerity but also want a more radical alternative the one that is on offer from the mainstream parties. The growth in support for the Scottish National Party and the Greens is clear evidence that anti-austerity arguments are popular. Millions of people hated the Coalition’s policies but were not sure if there was an alternative. Now having listened to the case against austerity they liked what they heard. However, it is sobering that in their desperation for an alternative, many turned to UKIP, who got the third highest vote. Thankfully Nigel Farage himself failed to win a seat.

The political establishment has been shaken by the SNP’s tidal wave in Scotland. The Tories very tight majority will mean that their back benchers will feel empowered to dominate the party causing even more rifts and splits. A Tory government relying on the votes of their backbenchers and the Democratic Unionist Party makes them very vulnerable to movements from below.

For UCU this means putting the fight for Post-16 education at the centre of the movement against austerity. At the heart of this movement must be the campaign to save Adult Education. To achieve this we need to frame our campaign within a vision of genuine student-centred education and be prepared to use every weapon in our armoury; lobbies, demonstrations and strikes.


three women with UCU no cuts placard-1040198Building a national campaign on the determination to resist

Throughout the last five years the movement has shown the potential to stop the cuts. The mass demonstration in November 2010 against tuition fee rises and cuts in the Educational Maintenance Award (EMA) was the first wave of opposition to the Coalition’s attempt to make working people pay for the bankers’ crisis.

The NUS/UCU demonstration that Autumn broke the consensus that austerity was inevitable. The pension strikes followed and by late 2011 two million public sector workers from twenty nine unions struck together on one of the biggest one day strikes in British history.

Unfortunately we were unable to block the government’s attacks, not because the will and determination was lacking, or because of public opposition. In fact, every opinion poll showed very high levels of public support for the strikes. Rather it was the failure of much of the trade union leadership to organise further coordinated action which demobilised the campaign.

There have been many successful campaigns over the past five years like the New Era Estate campaign to defend housing in East London, the disability activists’ campaigns against Atos and the NUT campaign against Michael Gove. Many workers have been prepared to take prolonged strike action to defend their jobs and services, like Lambeth College, the Doncaster Care workers and the National Galleries strike.

To stop the Tories in their tracks we need more resistance to austerity at every level. But we cannot fight a second wave of austerity college by college, workplace by workplace or community by community. We need a national campaign that unites all these issues into a single mass movement.


UCU must raise its game

UCU punched well above its weight in its first four years of its existence. We took national initiatives over fees, EMA, pensions and pay. The union quickly developed a profile that allowed us to recruit and begin to build stronger branches and regions. However, since the TPS and USS pensions disputes UCU has become far less visible nationally and this is weakening us at branch level.

At the heart of the debate is what kind of trade union UCU should be: one that services members through copious amounts of casework and local grievances – or a campaigning union, mobilising its members around the defence of Post-I6 education. Of course casework and campaigning can co-exist, but unfortunately most of UCU’s leadership is deeply pessimistic about the potential for the union to mobilise its members.

Yet there is absolutely no evidence to suggest members are not interested in campaigning. On the contrary, where leadership has been offered with a clear strategy of how to achieve our aims members have been very enthusiastic to get involved.

Women holding ESOL placard-1040170


Saving Adult Education: a model of Social Trade Unionism

One example is the current campaign to save Adult Education. The shock announcement of a 24 per cent cut in the Adult Education budget in February shook UCU out of its slumber and has begun to show how a campaigning union could be built across the Post-16 sector.

Although still far too cautious about getting behind initiatives both industrially and politically, UCU nationally moved to make this issue a central one in the run up to the election and is committed to taking the campaign to the new government.

When the cuts were announced UCU quickly put together a coalition to defend Lifelong Learning involving trade unions and educational and employers organisations. A petition was launched which so far has received almost 40,000 signatories. A #lovefe website was initiated which has a wall of thousands of campaigning stories and photographs. Three early day motions have been written, one of which has been signed by 68 MPs.

In the pre-election period 1,350 members used the campaign page to email 1,700 parliamentary candidates/MPs. The twitter hashtag #loveFE appeared on over 1.1 million device screens with over 3.5 million timeline deliveries during the week of the #loveFE day on 26 March called by the FEC. What has given the campaign its mobilising momentum have been the initiatives taken by London Region UCU. There have been three main events aimed at uniting UCU with the communities our members serve, at the centre of which have been many women migrant workers who attend ESOL courses.

On March 18th this year 500 students and lecturers lobbied Parliament. Then on the evening of 25th March 400 students and lecturers marched on Downing Street to deliver a letter to the Prime Minister calling on him to reverse the cuts. Most recently on the 26th April 1,500 students and lecturers turned out to march on City Hall to lobby Boris Johnson.

These lobbies and demonstrations put UCU at the heart of the campaign to defend Lifelong Learning and united the community with UCU. The slogan, ‘fight for every job, fight for every student place’ has enabled the union to mobilise students and lecturers. Now we need to deliver the coordinated strike action to back our demands to withdraw the cuts. It is this kind of social trade union model that needs to be rolled out across all sectors of UCU.

This model has three essential elements. We build campaigns with students and communities: we also develop the union as a high profile organising, campaigning one which readily attracts new members, plus we take local and national strike action wherever necessary. There can be no substitute for strike action, which remains an indispensable weapon in our defence of jobs and courses. The most successful examples of this approach in recent times have been the Chicago teachers’ campaign and the campaign and strikes for a minimum $15 an hour among low paid workers in the US.


Seizing the moment – building a national campaign

We are now entering a new political situation. The onslaught is set to continue – we have no alternative but to resist. There is real potential to mobilise millions to stop the second wave of austerity and begin to reverse the terrible damage that has been done. To do that effectively we need a more radical politics – one that fits with the progressive instincts of working people.

This can only be done through building a national movement. Education must be at the heart of this movement. We can start by supporting the amendment to Congress 2015 calling for a national demonstration in defence of Post-16 education. The NUS have just elected a left wing leadership who are looking for partners to call a demonstration, as are the NUT after their Easter conference. A weekend demonstration could see thousands march in defence of working class education.

Alongside this, UCU members in Further and Adult Education are preparing to take industrial action in defence of jobs and education. UCU needs to be on a war footing to ensure that branches taking action have the union’s weight behind them encouraging branches to raise money and send messages of support.

Similarly if we see national action over pay in the next academic year we need to take the same approach and break the employers’ punitive strategy of 100 percent pay deductions that has held back resistance in HE. In FE the demand for ‘£1 an hour extra for all’, framed in the wider fight for more funding, is one that members would enthusiastically campaign for.

UCU could also initiate a mass campaign to defend the ‘Public University’ in HE working with student unions and campaign groups, academics, uniting all those in HE who want to oppose student fees, casualisation and accelerating marketisation of the sector.

This strategy can make UCU visible again, as it has started to do with the Adult Education campaign. It will help to rejuvenate our branches and win battles. Rather than casework dominating branch life we can build branches that are outward looking and can be a beacon of hope and inspiration in every college and university.

Sean Vernell, UCU City and Islington College Coordinating Committee Secretary and national negotiator.

6 Replies to “The second wave of austerity: putting the defence of post-16 education at the heart of the resistance.”

  1. Good analysis Sean. I think that in discussing the possibility of building a “national campaign that unites all these issues into a single mass movement”, its worth reflecting on recent experiences in Scotland where RIC and elements of the Wider “Yes” campaign such as Women for Independence effectively developed into an anti-austerity national campaign – some have even said social movement n Scotland. This and the recent success of the SNP’s anti-austerity message show a national movement against austerity is very much not off the agenda despite the Tories apparent “victory”.

  2. Thank you. I appreciate your putting a brave face on it, but please don’t feel hurt by that phrase. True, we have to prepare for the next year and five. At the same time let’s please accept while millions opposed austerity millions more trusted the party in power. We have to start by acknowledging there’s something WE haven’t understood yet. I have nothing more to say, no ideas to contribute. I feel defeated and quite sick to the stomach. I know that’s an un-left response, too personalized. I don’t know about others, but I need time to get back on my feet. N.Vittal

  3. It was a dreadful result, Tories in, UKIP 4 million votes, but there was a small victory here and there – we stopped Farage for the moment and Caroline Lucas, John McDonald and Jeremy Corbin all increased their majorities because they offered a clear response to the Tories. The night before the election we held a UCU Greenwich Community College public meeting which vowed to campaign across the borough with the staff, students and everyone in the community against the cuts in education. It’s a good article thanks Sean and we will send it to everyone in Greenwich & Bexley TUC and students and staff at GCC. Lynne Chamberlain

  4. I feel your pain & am sorry you’re demoralised, N.Vittal – Hard not to be when you think of what’s to come…
    But at the same time should try not to let our feeling despondent paralyse us: in fact we have to step up a gear & start fighting even cleverer now.
    I didn’t expect a Labour win because they weren’t offering any answers – only trying to out-Tory the Tories.. The lack of confidence or vision of real left alternative amongst voters is further compounded by our union leaders who have preferred not to actively build fighting campaigns – instead sat on any sparks of fight in favour of telling everyone didactically to vote… Teachers know learning and transformation happens thru experience – not passive reception of ideas- we only learn our own power & gain vision through actively fighting -it’s the most powerful way to learn and gain back our consciousness & confidence… in fact it’s contagious!!!
    And right now it’s clear, we have no alternative but to do it ourselves, organise and build and get ready for the battle to come!

  5. In the end most members of UCULeft, certainly in England, will have voted Labour. Perhaps pinching their nose at the time, most will have taken a look at the options on the ballot papers and concluded that a Labour Government would have been the best outcome.

    It has been tried a thousand times and failed a thousand times, to build a majority by adding together all the different minorities. UCU should stop pratting around, declare our support, (affiliate even) to the Labour Party and contribute towards setting Labour up with a narrative (vision even?)that appeals to a broad majority. The alternative is to continue to stand aside and watch the Westminster Bubble as the Blairites and Unison/Unite etc. kick lumps out of each other for the next five years, then sniffily blame them all when the Tories win again.

    One certain outcome of the General Election is that no alternative political party is going to have an impact. Liberals and Greens are too weak to have any influence on the new Government. The best they can expect is to feature in local and euro elections. In Parliament it will need a reinvigorated Labour Party, to perform their job as opposition, well, to make any impact on Tory policy decisions.

    In Scotland it may well be that, at present, the SNP are pitching themselves as more radical than Scottish Labour. Any member of UCULeft will understand them wanting to be far removed from the Bullingdon Mob. UKIP may, for now, appear to be at the other end of the spectrum, Surely we know that the forces of any Nationalist agenda will always end in tears?

    This call to resist is obvious. We don’t join an organisation like UCULeft in order to lie down while the powerful roll over us. Accepting that joining barricades can be quite empowering (and good fun), perpetual resistance is not an attractive proposition for most members of UCU. They need to see that we have a notion of a realistic alternative, that will bring happier times!

    Two things are certain. In Parliament, we need to equip the Labour Party with the information, tools and ammunition to oppose Tory plans to our sector. Just as importantly,in five years time whatever UCUleft’s vision of a perfect government would be, it is not going to happen. But we can choose now, not to let perfect, be the enemy of good.

    Neither UCU nor the Labour Party are short of faults & contradictions. Neither are in a good place right now. Mutual support can turn that around quicker and help both to become ” a beacon of hope and inspiration”

    Eddie Collett
    Member of both

  6. I think the comments above, and especially yours, Eddie, are the start of a very necessary and hopefully fruitful debate about how we can fight back in the wake of a really bad election outcome and what sort of alternative we should try to build.

    I could not get to congress this year but it sounds like the atmosphere was really good and people are open to the call to resist the Tories as well as promote a vision of an anti-austerity, anti-market alternative which surely has to be the basis of our defence of education.

    Eddie, you raise the issue of ‘our’ attitude to the Labour Party and suggest that UCU Left ought to support and even affiliate to Labour. It is certainly true that thousands of people have joined Labour since the election, but is that really the best, most effective option? Your post does not make much play of the possibility of building a social movement with at least a very substantial extra-parliamentary element on the streets and in the workplaces, from which could develop the socialist political alternative that perhaps we all want to see. That seems to me to be a serious possibility in the coming weeks and months and, frankly, more realistic than falling in behind what is a very wet Labour leadership which is failing to learn the lessons of the election (ie that they should have offered an anti-austerity, anti-Tory strategy) and is driving even further to the Right.

    It is at heart a matter of whether you think Labour can be (can ever be?) that socialist alternative. In my view it can’t, and the lessons from history, I would suggest, all substantiate that view. Perhaps the most recent example of how Labour puts the ‘national interest’ before class and the interests of working class supporters was of course the Scottish referendum, where Labour disgracefully formed a bloc with the Tories and in the process alienated the vast majority of its electoral base, with the results we saw in the general election.

    History is full of examples of good socialists and militants joining Labour and either being dragged to the Right politically or being disappointed and demoralised by Labour’s perpetual embrace of capitalism and the market.

    I think what we need is a mass movement of opposition to austerity and privatisation based in the workplaces and the streets, which has to include both local and national mass strike action, and a united left political alternative which can give voice and energy to the millions who want to defend the NHS and public services and so on. It should be a united front of Labour supporters and non-Labour. Obviously we can’t just pull that out of our thumbs or wish it into existence, but I think Sean’s article sets out how we in UCU can be a core part of promoting such a movement if we can develop the momentum that already exists from the campaign to defend Adult and Further education, and from our Congress.

    Laura Miles

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