The IBL and the left – response to Adam Ozanne’s overview of the UCU factions #ucu2018 #ourUCU

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(In pic: Pura Ariza (UCU left), Adam Ozanne, (IBL), Rob Goodfellow (IBL), Dave Muritu (UCU left), pictured at the regions and nations meeting on the eve of UCU2018)

Earlier today the IBL faction published their account of what happened at congress this year, penned by IBL NEC member Adam Ozanne.

The Real Democratic Deficit in UCU

While there have been responses elsewhere challenging the account of congress itself, as well as branches stating that their positions have not been accurately reflected in accompanying material, I thought it would be helpful to focus specifically on the claims made in the article about the Independent Broad Left (a group of like-minded individuals rather than a faction from the point of view expressed in the article) and the UCU left (SWP controlled militant wreckers, again from the perspective of the IBL article). Specifically I thought it would be useful as someone who is in the left and transparently elected to the NEC on a left slate to respond to the differences identified between the two factions, before identifying what I experience as the key differences between the two. I will tackle these one at a time.

Before launching into his assessment of the differences between the factions, Adam repeats the misrepresentation made elsewhere and in particular in connection to the communist party that motions 10 and 11 originated from the UCU left:

“Some members of UCULeft are clearly angry that they lost the argument and the vote, but that does not justify their attempts to mislead UCU members about the March 28thmeeting and discredit the vote; nor does it justify their attack on the GS (who comprehensively defeated their candidate in last year’s election) on the basis of flimsy allegations of misconduct and holding her “accountable”. Moreover, the USS ballot result proves the falseness of the myth they seek to perpetuate, and which was repeated at Congress, that pre-1992 members were keen to continue striking into the exam period after Easter and that the union leadership “stole victory” from them.”

It is for others in HE to discuss the USS vote which is already happening elsewhere but the representation of the left attacking the GS patronises the non-aligned members who brought the motions along with their branches who voted for them. Over the course of congress the left organised to support the right of members to get their motions heard, but we played no role in the motions arriving at congress and had not agreed a position to support the motions. It has been suggested elsewhere that senior members of the IBL are more than aware of this but choose to allow their less politically knowledgeable support base to repeat the lie that the motions were a left plot. For what purpose? A number of different conclusions can b drawn: I have seen more cynical explanations about the long term managed timidity of the union but maybe initial hope that conservative elements of the middle ground would fall into a game of “us and them”?

Adam goes on to say

“The reluctance of UCULeft to accept these defeats gracefully also demonstrates the hollowness of their claims to being for a “democratic and member-led union”, as does their past opposition to the introduction of the consultative e-ballots and Get The Vote Out campaigns that have been so successful in nullifying the 50% turnout requirement of the government’s anti-trade union legislation and building grassroots member support for industrial action.”

UCU left have historically opposed e-ballots as a replacement for branch meetings. E ballots are a useful tool but if they are used as a primary method of communication we leave a member isolated and surrounded by the deluge of messages from management that saturate the rest of her inbox. She doesn’t get to listen to debate or gain the confidence of solidarity that is at the core of successful trade union organising. There has been historical opposition to moves to use “e-democracy” to cut away the democratic layers of our union as a sole direct GS-member connection with no other sources of argument is not how we see a member led union. The allegation about Get The Vote Out is just outright false and buries the role the left have played in developing and pioneering this as a strategy.

Adam then goes on to review the differences between the factions (or as he prefers, faction and network) which I will take in turn.

UCU left

  • controlled NEC from the time of the AUT/NATFE merger until about four years ago;

I first attended congress in 2012. At that point I was not aligned with any faction. The NEC was not to the best of my knowledge dominated by the left, and this certainly wasn’t reflected in the top table. NatFHE historically was seen as the more militant union (representing FE and post-92, i.e. traditionally working class sectors of education), and AUT less so. Others will know more. The next year Liz Lawrence was elected as a left president and this was a break from the norm rather than the norm.

  • has a separate national membership list, which means it can inform its members how to vote in elections etc., and quickly instigate social media campaigns – for example, in the 24 hours before the meetings about USS on March 13 and 28 HEC members received a barrage of 400-500 Twitter messages;

UCU left does have a membership list and pass on information about elections – it would be a pretty rubbish organising outfit if it didn’t. UCU left was not responsible for organising the #nocapitulation member revolt and the more politically savvy IBL members must surely be aware of this. It would be a fantastic thing to take credit for but it came from rank and file members, including of course those who are members of the left but certainly not led by them.

  • has separate membership subscriptions of up to £30 per year;

UCU left do have subscriptions for those who choose to join. This funds campaign materials and organising meetings e.g. the left fringe held on the first night after walkouts where delegates from across the union regrouped to discuss events. I will return to this point in the IBL section.

  • is dominated by the Socialist Workers Party and other ultra-left group (sometimes allies, sometimes enemies) like the Socialist Party (formerly Militant Tendency, famous for “entryism” into the Labour Party in the 1980s – see Michael Crick’s book, “The March of Militant”, 1986), Socialist Equality Party (one of many splinter groups from the Workers Revolutionary Party) who also claim to represent the “Rank and File”, and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW);

UCU left is a democratic group and is not dominated by any political party. It does include members of the SWP along with left wing Labour Party members, socialist party members and Greens. I’ve not heard of the Socialist Equality Party but could be true. Badging the left up as an SWP front is patronising to the majority of us who are not members and acts as a red-baiting diversion to demonise the individuals involved rather than engage in debate over politics. It is a cheap shot and things are about to get cheaper. Before we move on to the next point, I would add that there is clear confusion here between the UCU left and the emerging “Rank and File” grouping. While there are common goals there are clear distinctions between the two. I would say that UCU left is a deep rooted part of the union which stretches across all sectors and centres on the long term project of a member-led fighting union. The Rank and File is more like a wave than a deep rooted plant: it is the momentum of a new layer of angry activists, many casualised, and is the culmination specifically of the USS mobilisations and the perceived shut down of that dispute. It is currently quite specific to pre-92 HE and to the dispute itself though as it is in motion this may well change significantly.

  • the SWP is a Trotskyist party believing in democratic centralism (i.e. a central leadership deciding how members will vote), impossibilism (i.e. raising people’s expectations so that, when they are dashed, they become politically radicalised), vanguardism (the leadership of the proletariat by a revolutionary elite) and permanent, international revolution;

I’m not in a position to answer on impossiblism, but this doesn’t match the behaviour of the SWP members I know which is grounded in pragmatism and broad church organising. I am not the right person to fully explain SWP ideology but I suspect that the author has less of a grip than I do. UCU left is not a democratic centralist organisation hence we have membership, elections and discussions. Where there is no democratic consensus we do not vote collectively.

  • SWP membership declined dramatically after sexual assault and rape allegations involving a leading member, “Comrade Delta”, were denied by the party’s leadership in 2013-14; it has little influence in unions anymore, apart from UCU and the NUT;

I have been working with Elane Heffernan, a UCU left member who left the SWP during the incident referred to and a sister on the women’s committee, to ask that this is not repeatedly weaponised to score political points. It is completely triggering and inappropriate to do this and it has impacted on assault survivors in attendance at congress. I have no idea what membership figures look like but SWP members are active across a broad range of unions, because like the CP who we will come to in a minute, it is a key arm of their organising. So far there has been little  work done by Momentum to organise in unions and other left outfits are just smaller and less organised so far as I can tell. The NUT does not exist: it has been the NEU since merging with the ATL.

  • the SWP national organiser attended Congress and regularly meets with SWP members before meetings at Costa across the road from UCU’s London headquarters.

I assume the congress point relates to the SWP press pass (which is also extended to the Morning Star, the communist party paper). See above point on organising levels of different parties for “Costa-gate”.

Independent Broad Left Network:

  • was set up around five years ago by NEC members who were fed up with the domination of ultra-left UCULeft members who, it was felt rightly or wrongly, did not reflect the priorities of members and were leading the union into poorly supported industrial actions;

This is just not true though the name may have emerged then. The politics definitely pre-date 2013. Sally Hunt endorsed an IBL slate in the 2012 election and I regularly heard “the Stalinists” referred to before that point. The political picture at that point was that we had won a considerable victory in getting rid of the IFL in FE and had just been on strike with increasing numbers of unions across the public sector over pensions. There was considerable dismay across the membership when Unison GS Dave Prentis effectively ground this to a halt a day after our biggest day of action.

Since that point it has been increasingly clear that the IBL exist to block the “impossiblism” they attribute to the SWP. After a court injunction prevented FE strike action a year or two later the IBL responded by firstly packing a special sector conference in order to pull a live ballot, an incredible stunt to pull, and then later boycotted a further special sector conference when they did not have enough delegates to be certain of control rendering the meeting inquorate – an historical event I remember very clearly as a mother having arranged childcare for the occasion.

  • outside of the previous and current NEC and one or two regions, where like-minded UCU members have set up separate mailing lists, has no national membership list;

This is not reflected in what I hear from people about communications received.

  • has no separate membership subs;

… which begs the question: who pays for their materials etc? I would be interested to know. If the IBL is not a rank and file organisation with members meetings and votes then how do members input into the decisions taken by this group which are communicated on such a big scale to the wider membership?

  • discusses before votes which candidates may stand the best hope of winning but does not “whip”, there is no block voting at Congress or on UCU committees – members listen to debates and vote accordingly, often in different ways;

This just doesn’t reflect how NEC happens. If we had the voting record the left have asked for to deliver transparency it would be absolutely clear to members that there is a bloc vote. I have seen IBL tweets telling people how to vote at congress and material produced for congress with voting instructions – notably to my mind the instruction to vote against the West Midlands motion at Glasgow calling for individual equality seats for all the strands on regional executive committees, a motion which was carried but has not made its way on to regional standing orders. At one congress the chair had to point out that we were in a closed session after the IBL twitter account tweeted telling people how to vote on a motion.

  • includes members and former members of the Labour Party, SNP, Liberal Democrats, Communist Party and no party at all, often with differing views and opinions – the key is “independent”.

Similar range to the left then – I would add that it has included very vocal opponents of Corbyn and also make the point that the CP should be first rather than last on this list.

Adam concludes this section by stating

“Contrary to UCULeft claims that there are two factions in the union, it is fairer to say that whereas UCULeft is indeed a faction, i.e. an organisation within an organisation with its own subs etc., IBL is a loose network or, at most, an “anti-faction faction” that would disband quickly if UCULeft did not exist.”

The three key differences I would identify between the two factions are as follows:

1) Transparency

UCU left are always open about our political beliefs. We make it clear that we are standing as UCU left candidates and that this means we will vote to support industrial action, we believe in a member-led union (hence we supported the right of branches to have their motions heard at congress), and we support equality issues as central to the union. In contrast, the IBL operates in a shadowy fashion with little clarity of intent communicated to the members who elect them. I have only ever known one IBL candidate declare his faction in a contested election – David Ridley. The others all stand as “independent” candidates, suggesting to the voting membership that they oppose factions in the way Adam describes, and often repeat that they are independent in various forums. Nevertheless, they run a slate, organise and vote as a bloc, but without any of this being communicated to those who elect them.

2) Purpose

Adam’s comments make it painfully transparent that the unifying purpose of the IBL is to block. While the left have a shared ideology centred on the  view that unions have to act to be relevant and energise, the IBL do not have an alternative vision. Rather, Adam makes clear, their formation and purpose is to be an obstacle to what he presumably views as impossiblism in the union. It is a hollow position to mobilise around, and to some extent points to an existential crisis in play. The IBL are the self appointed guardians of the membership, but faced with dissent from this membership they declare a leftist plot rather than conceive that they are not in touch. I find it incredibly cynical and sad if this really is the raison d’etre of the IBL as it suggests no hope, no ideas, merely a plan to avoid kamikaze militancy reducing the union to a barely functional shell by modelling the union on a barely functioning shell.

3) Equality

UCU left views equality as central to the union. From the aforementioned material opposing equality strand representation on RECs, to attempts to end self organising equality strand conferences, there is a strong strand of IBL thought (not shared by all) which opposes equality initiatives as expensive and slams hard fought for spaces in the union as discriminatory to hetero white able bodied cis men. While debate exists on the left between class first liberation thinking and intersectional politics, the concept of oppression and the many forms it takes guides the way we think. Equality is something which always has to be worked on and clearly there is permanent work to be done on this in the left but a vacuum seems to exist in parts of the IBL.

Equality, purpose and transparency must be central to whatever comes next as the usual lines of the union shift. What comes next for the IBL is unclear. Their existence and behaviours have been made far more evident to the general membership than has ever previously been the case. I am not sure that they can easily disappear back into the shadows.

 

 

 

 

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Is it hurting yet? – Michael Carley on UCU HEC
  2. Pingback: What's wrong with factions? – Michael Carley on UCU HEC

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