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UCU Congress saw important victories for the left. UCU activist John Westmoreland reports on the conference and suggests a strategy for stopping government attacks on education

This year’s UCU Congress saw General Secretary Sally Hunt’s attempt to break the influence of UCU Left come to a halt – at least for the time being. On the three potentially divisive issues of pay, pensions and union democracy the Left won the day.

On pay UCU is committed to balloting for industrial action in the autumn. On pensions we will be entering into escalating action, again in the autumn, with teaching unions NUT and NASUWT. We will also be supporting the potentially huge TUC anti-cuts demonstration on 20 October. Congress also voted against Hunt’s much heralded ‘reforms’ to union democracy.

Hunt claimed that she was going to bypass branch activists and ‘listen to the wishes of the members’ through what she calls ‘electronic consultative ballots’. Her desire to reduce the size of the NEC and move the union towards a service union model caused anger well beyond the membership of UCU Left.

Delegates queued up to denounce the idea that an email questionnaire could provide a better democratic consensus than that produced by debate at Congress. Professional statisticians mocked the idea that ‘three vague and misleading questions’ could possibly give Hunt a mandate to change the union’s structures, as she claimed.

However, the story is not finished yet. Hunt claimed in advance that if she was blocked at Congress she would continue to campaign directly to the members. Although it is ironic that she can mount a better and more determined propaganda campaign against the Left in her own union than against the Tories who are out to destroy public education, the Left would be mistaken to think that the danger has passed.

The decision to take UCU into strike action on 10 May was not understood or supported by a large number of members at a time that was close to exams, while the influence of UCU Left is weak in many areas of the country. This leaves the potential for Hunt to continue her attempts to bypass Congress and the NEC, trying to undermine the Left by a direct appeal to members who are unfamiliar with the arguments. UCU Left needs to focus on developing the kind of campaign that will appeal to the wider membership.

Left reality check

Although the Left came out of congress with a clear and outright victory in the debate, delegates came away without a clear strategy to build the union and take the fight to the Tories. While Sally Hunt should be rightly condemned for internalising strategy rather than taking on the government, the Left has to change its game too.

That the Left is strong within UCU is undeniable. Left-wing branch officers and delegates are the people who build and maintain the union and defend their members’ interests. We get voted in time and time again, because we are prepared to fight, and often put the fight back before our own welfare. It is also true that as the attacks from the Tories, underpinned by a rabid right wing ideology, become ever more vicious, so the membership moves increasingly to the Left in their political attitude.

However, we have to look reality in the face here. The Left is not hegemonic in the union by any stretch of the imagination. On 10 May many members, and even branches of UCU, failed to come out on strike. This is compounded by the fact that the density of union membership is patchy across the country. UCU is the largest union in Higher and Further education, but it is not growing at the rate it should be in the current crisis.

A wasted opportunity

There was another side to this year’s Congress which needs to be told, because there was clearly a potential to not only build a trade union, but also launch a massive campaign bigger than our membership to defend education and destroy the Tory assault. On the whole the delegates were some of the best people to give voice to their concerns that you could wish to meet.

It is not just that they were of the Left and voted against Sally Hunt’s reforms. They revealed themselves as the true defenders of education as a force for liberation. Delegates argued for their members’ and institutions with a passion and a humanism that we not only have to applaud, but to harness and develop as the potent antidote to Gove, Willetts and Wilshire.

Congress passed over two hundred motions. Most of them were passed unanimously, and with just the introductory speech needed to gain approval. Virtually all the motions were left wing - and were cheered. They ranged from the standard declarations to fight and organise over pay and conditions, workload, bullying and stress, to appeals to support workers in Greece and Spain, to show solidarity with Colombia and above all to defend the equalities agenda that is crucial to the teaching environment.

But do not for one minute think that the motions were the product of a tiny group of ageing lefties who make their pronouncements simply to bolster their political credentials. This year the motions came from the members more widely. They were argued for with real passion, motivated by their concern as educators that the civilised values they want to work and live by are being sold by the Tories to the business vultures circling above.

That Congress could end without a strategy to unite this passion and direct it against the enemy should act as a wake-up call to the Left.

Uniting the sections

Admirable as the resolutions were, it is impossible for branches to fight on these issues one by one. Sally Hunt seems to believe she can deal with the myriad issues facing members by case work and efficiency. The Left is dominated by the idea that escalating industrial action alone will win the day.

But both these positions are wrong. If Sally Hunt continues to refuse to lead members in a national campaign that gathers momentum and builds towards serious strike action we will be defeated on issue after issue. The resulting demoralisation of the members will in turn lead to further privatisation and further attempts to destroy us by the Tories. But calling for strikes without having mass campaigning on broader educational issues is also an inadequate strategy.

The answer that will give members the confidence and determination to fight and campaign involves harnessing the compassion, intellect and commitment of the members in a campaign to defend education itself. Congress proved that this is what motivates us above all else. Education is widely understood to be a vital component of what it means to be human.

Education underpins more than the economy and society; it is bigger than our jobs and conditions. Therefore when we defend education we automatically connect with, and offer a unifying influence on all the sectional disputes and struggles we face.

Teachers are dangerous people

The most moving part of Congress was when a Colombian teacher, Dr. Miguel Angel Beltran, spoke. He had faced persecution, imprisonment and torture at the hands of a dictatorship backed by the US. He explained that a high percentage of trade unionists that were murdered by the regime were teachers: “Teachers, you see, are dangerous people”.

Education can be used to subdue and domesticate our youth; or it can be liberation. With youth unemployment at record levels and a rigid neo-liberal economic dogma wrecking our lives, education needs to become public property and play the role that all the great educationalists have demanded of it. Education should be fundamentally subversive and challenge received wisdom so that we might progress, and the next generation go beyond the limits of the current one.

Congress showed there is unbelievable and widespread anger. Let’s focus it on the highest prize there is: liberating humanity from tyranny and dogma. And if teachers across the sections – from primary schools to universities shout it with one voice – they will be true to their profession and teach a lesson of historic importance.

John Westmoreland

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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