The cause of labour has not been advanced by the nuanced reflection of capable individuals, but through collective struggle. Corbynism was not delivered in the Labour Party by a series of atomised individuals, but rather through an organised left. He will not remain as party leader, and the empowerment of members he represents will not remain, without a collective, disciplined and organised left.
I often notice that those who accept without question the need for the left to be organised in the Labour Party (seeing from their own experiences and perhaps the greater visibility of internal events the need for continuous struggle) flinch and despair at left organising within unions. Factions are associated with sectarianism, ego, and misdirection of energy. That a political party is a site of struggle is understood and accepted, however reluctantly, in a way in which the union is not. We organise in the Labour Party because only organisation keeps the party accountable as a vehicle for the collective advancement of the membership and the cause of labour itself. But through some cognitive inconsistency, we view unions as passively remaining in the power of members through dismissal of political difference and assume we can select independent guardians who through virtue of their independence itself are able through their atomised reasoning to deliver union leadership in a way that bypasses left organisation to create some sort of homogenous direction the union then takes to support the cause of labour.
It’s a palatable, cosy way to view unions and the organised right within UCU have recognised this for a long time, obscuring their collective organising as the IBL in any election material. A CP core and a much wider less consciously factionalised block of small c conservatives are “recommended” rather than being put out as a slate and they almost always identify themselves as “independent” in election literature, before going on to vote as a bloc in their executive positions to “urge caution” when members vote for action, and to support bureaucracy over the grassroots.
It’s easy to see why it works, and why genuine independents are attractive to members when they vote. It is not hard in particular to understand how baffling and unnecessary internal struggle in a union seems to officers in our most isolated branches: you’re struggling to engage members who have been smashed by cuts, escalating workloads, bullying management regimes or victimisation, desperate to even get your members to show up at a meeting, and the idea that union officers are diverting much needed energy into internal struggle rather than facing off against those that deliver these conditions to our members is disheartening and tiring. This tells us a lot about how isolated these branch officers are: for them to exist shows we have much work to do in engaging branch officers with their regions and the NEC. These branch officers are too removed from the heart of the union to understand how political struggle impacts on the direction of the union for all members: the fights we will have when necessary and the role these fights have in delivering for members. Electing candidates who will organise together to tip the union in the direction of action, equality and democracy is a way of taking action against the push always taking place within unions in the direction of servicing in place of activism, against the bureaucracy which pushes branch officers to be first and foremost case workers; caseworkers sent in by a union alone if they are sent in without a visible collective which is prepared to fight. Without an organised left, these officers remain isolated.
Jo McNeill is a leader: a strategist, and a fighter seasoned by the continual struggle she has faced who will always come back when there are knocks with positivity. If we are moving past a cosy vision of what unions are to a pragmatic politicised understanding of what unions are and what they do, we need to be honest about the fact that internally and externally there will be many knocks.
Jo is the sort of leader who will inspire members and deliver grit when many others would crumble. A former Access student who knows first hand the vital role FE plays in class empowerment, she fought the USS dispute alongside fighting for her life and has come back to stand again for a democratic UCU which defends the role of the grassroots membership, a union which fights.
Vicky Blake is similarly an outstanding individual: quietly courageous and often battling exhaustion to pursue what she believes in, she has worked tirelessly for anti-casualisation and the union more widely. She inspires deep loyalty and friendship in those close to her and inspires and reaches out to others more widely.
Both the left (Jo) and the non-aligned candidate (Vicky) are amongst UCU’s finest. But for me, and for those who recognise all political organisations as sites of struggle, the choice is between a vote for collective, organised struggle to defend and advance democracy, equality and activism in the union, and a vote for a model where these things are handed down to us through discernment in selecting appropriate independent guardians for those things. Crudely, it is the distinction between Marxism and an acknowledgement that -all- of our interactions and structures are shaped by power, and a liberal position where the independent individual, rather than collectivism, is key to democracy.
After 2 years on the NEC, full time work combined with being a lone parent means I will be standing down. I know how it feels to be an isolated branch officer in the aftermath of union busting, and I also know the very clear lines of power and the alternative visions for the union that take place at its heart. Just like in the Labour Party, only collective left organising can deliver for a member led union.
I will be voting 1 Jo McNeill and 2 Vicky Blake, plus voting for UCU left candidates across the other vacancies. If you understand that all of our victories come from struggle rather than being handed to us, then you should too.