Blogged: Union democracy, left organising, & the UCU GS candidates #VoteJoMc4GS

This week, ballots opened for the election of UCU general secretary, following Sally Hunt’s retirement on ill health. I differed politically from Sally on many issues and respected her on others: notably her commitment to internationalism and her tenacity in holding her own as a GS in a testosterone-flooded general council. Had she continued to fight on for another term, I would not have supported her, but I do not think it is helpful for the political problems of structures we come up against to be personalised and laid on individuals, however unhelpful their actions may be, and I am thankful for all that she put into the union in aiming to deliver what she believed in.

Three candidates are standing to replace her: Matt Waddup, a senior official in the union who is credited not least by himself for much of what was delivered under Sally’s leadership in recent years, Jo McNeill, the UCU left endorsed candidate who is branch president at Liverpool, a long term NEC member and national negotiator, and Dr Jo Grady, an industrial relations expert at Sheffield University with some experience in branch activism who is due to take a seat on the NEC for the first time following Congress. Broadly, we are looking at a continuity candidate who is an established manager of the union (Waddup), a seasoned activist who has played a key role in branch, regional and national mobilisation in favour of industrial action and member-leadership (McNeill), and an e-famous academic known for her high profile in the recent USS disputes and who specialises in industrial relations (Grady). I’ve written elsewhere about my admiration for Jo McNeill as an organiser, an activist, a sister and comrade. She’s a cancer survivor and an adult returner with educational participation at the heart of her work as well as her activism. Whenever I have needed Jo she has supported me, and the branch endorsements clocking up along with individual endorsements outline her history in organising on the ground in our union. However, more relevant to what I want to discuss, Jo McNeill is the only candidate to declare as being supported by an organised grouping (UCU left, the long-standing left organising body in the union) whilst the other two candidates have positioned themselves as independent or non-aligned.

For me a key democratic issue in elections is candidate transparency. I think the most democratic elections involve candidates stating clearly what their core principles are and how they will vote as a representative on key issues. Where an issue arises after an election which could not be predicted it should still be possible for the electorate to have an understanding of how decision making will be guided. I understand the arguments against factions as divisive, insular and off-putting, arguments which are amplified by many who oppose left organising, seek to disguise their own organising processes, or are unconscious about the extent to which they operate as part of an organised political collective with shared political values differing from others within the union or party they belong to. I also believe there is a risk in factional organising of becoming insular on the basis of shared endurance. However, based on my experiences, I believe that being open about organising groups we belong to, being clear about how to access and take part in those groups, and being clear about what those groups believe in, are a key part of how we push for apparatuses such as unions and political parties to be grass-roots led and proactive in fighting for worker rights and social justice in a system which is far from neutral and in which these apparatus are actively pulled in a way which aims to bureaucratise and depoliticise to support social continuity.

In UCU national structures independent candidates are fairly rare and incredibly difficult for voters to pick out from those who are thoroughly under the belief that they are independent but discuss votes separately from main union meetings and vote as part of a bloc, and those who seek to promote themselves as independent to gain election knowing that they are far from independent. Vicky Blake who recently won the VP election is a notable example of an independent candidate. I believe in her integrity and skills to organise and vote on principle, and I believe these things primarily because I know Vicky as a good union friend and sister who I have worked with over a long time period. I absolutely support Vicky as our elected VP as someone who will do a great job, but I gave her my second rather than first preference because I believe in voting for those who like me support the need for an organised left in political groups such as the Labour party or the union and because I support a socialist rather than liberal model of candidacy which rests on collective endeavour and beliefs rather than individual qualities. In the current election I will vote again for Jo McNeill, the candidate who openly states she is the candidate endorsed by UCU Left. The level of transparency of the other two candidates in standing on a ticket of independence I will review later in this piece, but I endorse Jo Grady as the second preference. I believe Matt Waddup could present big challenges to member-led democracy in our union.  

One of the key issues which has arisen in the union over the last year has been the motions of no confidence in Sally Hunt and the motion calling for her censure last congress (motions 10 and 11) following criticism that the USS dispute was poorly overseen in relation to recommendations to members over settling and terms of settlement. It has been commented on elsewhere that Matt was involved in officials walking out to terminate congress, but this is not what I wish to look at here.

UCU left candidates for NEC were elected on a mandate of standing for democracy and member-leadership of the union. When the IBL and IBL-supporting NEC majority pushed to have an NEC recommendation to congress that the no-confidence motion and a motion calling for the GS to be censured should be removed from the order of business on the grounds that there had been advice given that a vote of no confidence could if acted on be in breach of the GS contract, it could be predicted logically by those voting for UCU left candidates that their representatives would uphold the right of congress and the CBC as the elected body to oversee proceedings there and support the right of branches to have a motion which had been through the correct democratic proceedings heard on the floor of congress. It could also be predicted that those elected on a UCU left ticket would have a political view of the GS as an elected and accountable figure, and that this would take precedent over a view of the GS as an employee, albeit an executive employee, in a matter of recall. 

UCU left does not operate on a system of democratic centralism which means it would be less easy to call how we would vote on motions 10 and 11, because the political interest of members in different sectors in relation to the continuity of the GS varied. There was broad agreement to support the motion to censure the GS, but whilst pre-92 UCU left reps supported the call for no confidence FE reps faced a different situation. The AoC (the employers group for FE) had threatened to pull out of national negotiations and after a long process of growing support for action in the sector head office were mobilising to potentially pull all branches out in response. This was after years of frustrating one day strikes and stop start action, including a court injunction pulling action at the last hour and more amazingly, the IBL calling and packing a special sector conference to pull a live ballot and boycotting a special sector conference to get action back on to ensure it was not quorate. Whilst it transpired shortly that the threat was enough to bring the employers back to negotiations, a spiralling into an internal election cycle and removal of our key officer during that process had the potential to spell disaster for FE action. UCU left discussed this and were open in our lines of difference. 

There was some outcry at the time over how left representatives could even think of speaking or voting against a motion of no-confidence from those newly active in the union following the USS dispute, but for me this highlights the necessary space for left organising as something which happens in a coherent way across the union. UCU left candidates agree on the need for the union to be active and to fight. In this instance, pre-92 members had had their ability to fight severely inhibited, but the consequence of a vote of no confidence following this would mean FE members in incredibly difficult to organise conditions losing momentum and national resourcing for fighting. We need activists across all sectors to understand the dynamics of political arguments which relate to the union as a whole in terms of context and possible consequences for the different parts of the union we organise in. Where there are differences of impact, there needs to be a comradely space to consider these and if no consensus can be reached, the ability to openly explain reasoning more widely as to how different decisions have been reached.

When recall congress came to pass, with Sally Hunt now on long term sick leave relating to MS, UCU left members supported the withdrawal of the motion of no confidence and primarily voted and spoke in support of the motion calling for her censure. The reasoning for this was the need following the events of the USS dispute and the Congress walkout the need to reinforce the GS as being answerable to membership. I understood this argument but disagreed with the branch, the new layer of USS activists and UCU left comrades on the correctness of this motion being passed while the GS was sick; this was primarily based on the standards I would try to enforce during case work in relation to employers pushing through with disciplinaries during sick leave, but also a little influenced by my reservations over the use of disciplinary action as a way to resolve issues of democracy and power within the union. Contrary to allegations over the Left being a controlling or mindless group, I discussed this amicably with others prior to and after the event who understood without agreeing with my reasoning.

In the current GS election, a number of newly active members are enthusing about being able to vote for a left candidate who is not part of a faction, with comments also being made that the union has been paralysed by internal warfare between factions. This doesn’t fall too far from the vision of the union portrayed in the notorious Daily Mail article Matt Waddup has referred to on a number of occasions during his campaign, and it is easy to see why it is a palatable view: it offers hope that the obstacles to action are largely surmountable through unity, an ideological position Matt has put forward in his own vision for the future for the union. A level of unity is of course a desirable and necessary thing for a functioning union, and there are a number of issues which activists broadly agree on across the various factions and alignments, including the desire to defend members’ jobs, members’ working conditions, and members’ well-being.

But once we move past that, there are a couple of other trickier issues. These include whether a union should have a purpose beyond member-advancement/defence: are we self-interest groups, or do we have a broader remit as part of the labour movement to be actively anti-racist, anti-austerity, feminist, and to actively fight against disablism, homophobia and transphobia? Distinct from this though still concerned with power, for a union to work there is a need to continually make decisions about how it is achieves its aims, what it will claim and what it will agree to settle for. There is then a whole debate over who is best placed to make these decisions. Should these decisions be taken through open debate with wide members of elected voices feeding into the discussion, or should they be formulated through consultation of every member with the GS and paid officials deciding the frame for and managing responses to this consultation? All of this does not take place in a vacuum, but in 21st century Western capitalism where unions to some extent occupy a role of managing as well as organising worker unrest.

This being the case, the idea that a new non-aligned left would be any more effective in steering the union in a direction which is pro-democracy/member leadership, industrially active and pro-broader-struggle (which we can assume is what we mean by left in the context of trade union politics) takes a bit of unpicking. If a group of individuals are elected as non-aligned left candidates, without a clear electoral position separating them from other independent candidates speaking the same language, how do they organise in an environment where they will meet repeated opposition from those who do not share their beliefs on strategy, democracy, action, broader struggle or any combination of these things? If they meet or communicate in groupings in some way to exchange thoughts and strategy, it is difficult for them to be considered non-aligned at this point because an alignment has now formed. If they do not meet and exchange views, they will lack scope of information from across the different sectors, employment conditions and oppressed groups represented across the union and be limited in their ability to deliver something which includes the widest possible democratic left representation. It is naivety at best to assume that those who occupy the right wing of the union (not the right wing of broader politics, but to the right of trade unionism in favouring officials as best placed to inform strategy and direction, urging caution in industrial action in initiation and settlement, and sceptical of broader-struggle falling within the remit of the union) would behave any differently than in the past in promoting the election of “independent” and often “left-talking” candidates who would then vote in a bloc to force through their ideological positions on strategy. Perhaps it would be a level playing field if all candidates declared independence regardless of alignments but this would not deliver transparency to the electorate so would weaken rather than strengthening our democracy.

Another issue relating to alignment and factional organising in the current UCU climate is the power of the internet. In the USS dispute, this worked very much to the advantage of all who support a left position, in that those engaged in the dispute included a large body of members very interconnected online through twitter and to some extent other media through their academic networks who were then able to use this as a platform to organise revolt – firstly against the employers, and then against the union. It is not surprising that these connections have strengthened and continued, but their role in the current election is less clearly one which facilitates struggle. While pre-92 academics are relatively free and protected in their social media output, and have the time and cultural capital to communicate effectively to advance a candidate and their particular interests within the union using this media, in a broader election this creates a hot-point of campaigning in an area which relates most to those who work in elite institutions but is much less accessible, navigable and responsive for those who participate in the union elsewhere.

Academic-related staff do not automatically have the time or freedom of speech to engage online, and while some post-92 members are very engaged in the twitter network many are not: I would be interested to look at some sort of network mapping of how this all fits in terms of sector and activity/number of followers/number of interactions etc. In FE there is a triple penalty awaiting members who engage actively in open social media to even a fraction of the level of output of pre-92 e-activists: potential dismissal on the grounds of bringing the institution into disrepute, potential dismissal on the grounds of excessive non-work related activity during work time, or if the activity went undetected, dismissal on the grounds of capability due to the impact of online activity on ability to fulfil work requirements. Alongside this is a lack of familiarity with the codes of twitter speak, how to engage, and an absence of the extensive networks of academia. I am unaware of e-activism existing in the ACE section of our membership. For prison members, even having an electronic device at work is grounds for dismissal. Therefore, e-campaigning is in one sense delivering for a member-led union in that it allows access to a less controlled and more self-owned network than Sally Hunt ever faced as an IBL-endorsed bureaucratic candidate, but it is also acting to secure a lot of the biggest noise in this for pre-92 academic members.

This has happened alongside an emerging commentary from academics stating that they are endorsing Jo Grady because they believe only an academic can lead the union, that their own passivity in previous years is directly a result of non-academics activity in the union, and other problematic elitist statements. I’m not convinced enough has been done to separate the Grady campaign from this narrative, and in all fairness it would be tactically risky to do so given her support base. I am satisfied that she does not actively hold these views herself, and that any problems for those outside pre-92 should she be elected will relate to a laissez-fair stance on power imbalances in the union relating to class and sector/role rather than an active hostility. Her positioning of herself as “the only candidate in this election who works on the front line of teaching, research, and administration” gives a degree of concern over the extent to which non-academic staff are considered to be not on the frontline, particularly given the lower pay grades and higher pressure on non-academic staff in most institutions, but my interpretation is that this is about an election narrative in terms of how she wants to represent herself rather than a continuous political view on non-academic staff. This sits alongside other varying positions she has made publically on length of active service in the union and willingness to be endorsed by the left (she was endorsed in the NEC elections, having agreed endorsement, but reports this as a non-aligned campaign).  

To move from electoral transparency back to democracy more generally, I think Jo Grady’s manifesto is a mixed bag in relation to whether it points to a top-down or bottom-up model of the union. I think Grady’s appeal is built on a “new broom” approach, which means her manifesto is heavy on tick boxes of new initiatives rather than having a deep political focus: this necessitates in part from the need to attract the disillusioned from the left and the right, as well as the need to sweep up newly engaged members. As has been reported elsewhere by Michael Carley a number of initiatives laid out already exist, which demonstrates a lack of experience although not something which would be insurmountable for a new GS with an experienced staff base to guide her, which Jo G has already hinted at in the Cambridge hustings. Mainly her campaign promotes active membership and she has agreed to GS recall, a key point for a democratic union. It is likely that once the dust settles if elected she will seek to listen to long-term activists as well as long-serving staff.

A number of points in her campaign are surprisingly Sally-esque: the binary between “activists” and “members” used historically by the right to carve out distance between the legitimacy of listening to those who work to build the union and those who pay their subs in exchange for service was notable in her first all member e-mail. The GS surgeries are definitely reminiscent of a premiership which sought to at times replace layers of regional and national elected representation, and definitely evoke a top-down populist model of trade-unionism. There is some reference to innovative new forms of action has been knocking about for at least the last decade: seasoned FE activists may remember the IBL motion calling for UCU branded vuvuzelas as part of how we could deliver alternatives to industrial action to win for members. Perhaps coming from her awareness of her academic support base electorally, Grady’s regular reference to expert groups (particularly where counter-positioned against the time needed to run elections) are also one to watch, particularly where referring to the traditionally self-organised equality spaces.

That said, Jo Grady comes across as driven, broadly pro-member, expert on many issues within her sector and primarily sympathetic to if not aligned with the organised left of the union. As a working class woman she represents another female voice following on from Sally Hunt at the general council and I believe that she will be a more visible presence on pickets and (if allowed on the premises depending on sector and ferocity of management!) in branches. She is definitely a different candidate altogether from Matt Waddup.

Matt Waddup has been very careful in his choice of endorsements, choosing tactically to draw from non-aligned members and former supporters of other candidates along with less prolific NEC members traditionally voting with the IBL, taken from FE. There is no real doubt that he is the IBL endorsed candidate and his circulation of preliminary material to “branch leaders” outlines that the IBL have used their networks to generate a lay base for him. The IBL are very good at working under the radar and there will be an organising group in place. I think it is unlikely that he will publicise endorsements from figures such as Joanna De Groot or Dougie Chalmers given their connection to widely reported IBL interventions in the USS dispute and a number of members will perceive him as independent. Initially in his favour compared with Jo Grady, like Jo McNeill he is very knowledgeable about the different sectors of the union and the various levels and structures of the union. However I think there are a number of threats to union democracy more nakedly present in his narrative during campaigning so far.

It is very possible with Matt Waddup in post that we will see a continuation of the drive under Sally Hunt to move away from open debate and elected structures of the union (branch meetings, regions, congress) and in the direction of a top-down consultative model of democracy. This can be packaged very neatly under the label of increasing involvement, broadening democracy and making the union more representative of the “silent majority”. This is comparable to the battles in the Labour party between the anti-Corbyn PLP who perceived themselves as more able to understand Labour voters, and the activist membership (a narrative which has shifted in the party with different alignments appearing in relation to Brexit and a second referendum). It is very likely that Sally’s consultation of members over a second referendum will be used to underpin an argument for more GS led consultations and less collective decision making at other levels. This damages democracy in a number of ways: it assumes that a member sat overloaded and isolated at their desk clicking on an e-survey is no different from a member in a branch where debate has allowed exploration and the strength of collectivist democracy. It ignores the power of the person who frames the question and the material allocated to consider the question. All of these things we have come up against under Sally Hunt’s leadership, and I believe Matt is more confident in his ability to push through on them. 

If you believe that unions are in part apparatus to manage as well as facilitate the fight against oppression, then you should understand the need for an organised left within a union, and you should vote 1 Jo McNeill, 2 Jo Grady.

If you believe that candidates should be open about and conscious of how they will organise and what the collectives they organise with stand for, you should vote 1 Jo McNeill, 2 Jo Grady.

If you believe that members need to be active in unions, that left candidates should openly stand as candidates who will organise collectively for union democracy, industrial action as a necessity, and broad struggle beyond member pay and conditions, you should vote 1 Jo McNeill, 2 Jo Grady.

Whoever you vote for, you should vote and encourage all members you know to vote. A mandate is about transparency but also about turnout.




  1. rachelp82

    I am concerned about the fact that until very recently, Jo Grady mass-blocked a number of academics. I was one of them and my ‘crime’ seemed to be that I followed someone in my discipline who had apparently expressed views that Grady disagreed with. She unblocked us all as soon as her campaign started. I shall not be voting for her but I will vote for Jo McNeill.

  2. Pingback: Is it hurting yet? – Michael Carley on UCU HEC

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