I figure that if you are a UCU member who hasn’t posted their ballot papers yet, you may be somebody who is considering not voting at all. The deadline is February 28th – if you want to use your 2nd class freepost envelope you need to move fast.
Here is the case for voting at all, followed by a caution against voting for UCU Left. This is far from the best case that could be made, because it relies on my assertions as a long-time member, observer at first hand, but ultimately a common or garden member far from the inner circles of the union. As such I have a few very simple principles: this union is weak; it is weak because it is small; more and more active members will not mean a worse union; the most important thing UCU can do is grow an active membership; UCU Left is antithetical to this.
First, why vote?
Basically it’s about whether you think higher education should belong to its citizens or to a few wealthy owners of corporations. Are we going to collectively give it away and then as individuals buy it back, or is it ours to apportion according to principles other than whether or not you are rich and confident or hard-up and debt-averse?
I’d say that just a few recent issues of the Times Higher Education Supplement – a solidly establishment publication – contain all the indications necessary to convince you that a trade union is a necessity for a healthy sector. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has just appointed Peter Houillon from the for-profit provider Kaplan to the board. Nick Hillman, the new director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and special advisor to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovations and Skills, explicitly acknowledges that the proportion of student loans will never be repaid is larger than the government estimated. HEPI always said that privatisation of undergraduate education was more likely to cost the state money than save it. The implication was that its largest change would be to reposition higher education from a public good to a private investment.
If you’re still feeling lucky, and therefore grateful to be working in higher education (and maybe slightly guilty about your good fortune?) then look a bit further into the future. It’s not about you, so much as it’s about the wellbeing of a workforce and a sector. It’s likely that there will be an attack on terms and conditions for all UK employees – we need to understand this erosion on our own behalves and campaign against it jointly. The privatisation of higher education doesn’t end at allowing commercial ventures like Kaplan to compete for students. Those like the outsourced cleaners of the 3cosas campaign will know that privatisation brings an intensified downward pressure on wages and conditions towards the statutory minimum. The statutory minimum itself is increasingly meagre, a victim of the social cuts agenda. Holidays, sick pay, flexible working, pensions, paid annual leave, hours worked – in fact all the things the labour movement won for all workers over the past 100 years or so – are likely to be strategically scaled back by university managers who, impossible to forget, awarded themselves up to 12% in pay rises this year.
Trade unionism shouldn’t be taken as an attempt to gain exemptions from austerity for one group of employees – it needs to be understood as a defence against austerity itself. What belonged to us all collectively has been, and continues to be, taken from us and given to private citizens with money already. Creeping privatisation looks just like this: funding university teaching through the highest fees of any public university system; outsourcing university services such as cleaning, back office functions, language teaching; performance related pay; the sale of student loans, startling inequality of pay within a workforce. And all this in the context of a massive, status-quo-sustaining bank bailout. I am very angry and if I could only understand this technocracy, I think I’d only be angrier.
Second, how to vote
Firstly stay alert. UCU Left candidates dominate the ballot papers. Who are UCU Left? The first thing to say is that the political right does not exist in any meaningful way in UCU. I cannot confirm this, but I’m fairly sure that Labour supporters are by far the majority in UCU. At any rate all the candidates are progressive. For this reason I think we should consider UCU Left as UCU far Left.
Think twice about UCU Left for the following reasons.
UCU Left passes union cash to Socialist Worker Party front organisations. UCU Left’s website doesn’t say who they are but we know they were initiated by the SWP, a small ferociously well-organised revolutionary group with a very poor reputation for democracy and minority rights, along with Respect, an alliance with SWP and Islamist origins fronted (if not actually led) by the End Violence Against Women’s Sexist of the Year, George Galloway MP. Look back through your branch minutes. If your branch resolved to donate your subs to Unite Against Fascism or the Stop the War Coaltion, then that’s where the money has gone. The SWP is murky about the overlap between its own membership and that of UCU Left, but it’s widely thought to be high. As I have tried to explain in an earlier post, Unite Against Fascism is not what it says on the tin. Stop the War Coalition is not anti-war but – invariably – partisan and its alliance with Islamist groups has made it tolerate homophobia, misogyny and antisemitism. This organisation is a disgrace – but UCU Left tables and votes for motions to affiliate with it. How much have they stripped from our already meagre funds for this? I am not sure but I’ve witnessed motions for £250 or more. It may stretch to many thousands.
UCU Left is not transparent. I take for granted close political party involvement in trade unions. What I object to is that Socialist Worker Party and Respect candidates don’t declare their interests – they aren’t open about their affiliations. It’s not that I want or expect unaffiliated officers or committee members – on the contrary, the expertise and encouragement that outside groups can give trade union reps is very sustaining. The trouble is that the SWP is so famously authoritarian that I assume (in the absence of the aforementioned transparency it has to be an assumption) that any of its candidates are firmly briefed and disciplined to represent the SWP, and if representing the SWP conflicts with the interests of UCU members I have no confidence that those UCU members’ interests would win out. This should be recognised as a conflict of interest – though I can’t see the SWP acknowledging any such thing.
UCU Left is scared of a strong active UCU membership. Why is turnout so low? Why are meetings so rarely quorate? And how come so many motions are passed anyway? Once they gain officer positions, they tend towards a highly didactic, polemic, rhetorical, top-table style of engagement with other members. You get the impression they are frightened of democracy. They seem to think the main job of members is to vote in a strong leadership and after that shut up and do what you’re told. Themselves comfortable in authoritarian settings, they more or less mirror management – if anything they are less enlightened. Non-officer members mutter that they feel talked down to, not consulted, uninvolved. Sometimes it seems as if the worst threat for UCU Left is that members might come together under their own steam, unsupervised. UCU Left goes to some lengths to disrupt these egalitarian gatherings. If they can’t disrupt them, they join in and gradually crowd out other members with their own contributions. This leaves a membership used to being fed propaganda, but unused to actual debates with other colleagues. Quite simply, UCU Left ideas are left untested in a distinctly unacademic way.
UCU Left repels potential and actual members. If you go to a meeting where UCU Left assume they are in a majority, it soon becomes apparent that they operate in a bubble. In their bubble non-left members don’t exist or are discouraged. So if you are not on the left, you’re probably at the bottom of the UCU Left priorities – solidarity will only be extended to you if UCU Left decides it is useful to do so. If you try to get involved to change their balance of power you will have to work all the harder. You are only welcome insofar as you pipe down, keep still, cough up, and let UCU Left objectify you into a member they can turn into a statistic, and count on to do what they say. They do not care about your kind – they want to occupy your union and enlist it, bodies and monies, into their political movement, and they aren’t keen to hear your opinion about it..
UCU Left gives us a “fighting union” in the wrong sense of the word. To the aforementioned authoritarianism, add aggression. The bizarre and singular campaign to boycott Israel – which affected me deeply – was national news and extremely divisive. This is very much a modus operandi for the SWP, which is notorious for splits and have legions of disaffected former members. Although it’s quiet on that front now, UCU Left members still create a nasty atmosphere. At a recent meeting an SWP member called fellow UCU NEC members whose views he opposes ‘bastards’. I didn’t like the aggressive language in several of the candidate statements. It is not taken seriously by the employers and it tips hatred of social stratification into hatred of individuals. My supposition that those were UCU Left candidates was correct.
To sum up
I don’t want to be in a sect and I don’t want to occupy an officer position in order to keep a UCU Left candidate out. I am grateful to individual UCU Left candidates for their hard work and dedication – particularly their casework. But this does not entitle them to rope their branches into campaigns which are not in UCU’s interests, or to suppose that they know better what is good for their members than the members themselves. I do want an inclusive, active trade union and that starts with representatives whose message to their members is “You can make a difference” rather than “Hear me and do as I say”.
So, in this Single Transferable Vote election who gets your votes? All the other candidates are progressive, so look at the descriptions and vote for people who say they are interested in recruiting, engaging, representing all members. Think twice or more about these candidates.