In this week of unfolding dystopia, there is a lot going on.
I was gutted not to be able to attend the women’s march last Saturday and very grateful for the sisters who marched for me. The global women’s marches completely caught much of the left on the back foot. There has been a general antipathy and some antagonism towards the Hilary-defending of liberal feminism. I share the frustration that she was a terrible neo-liberal candidate in a time that demands radical alternatives, though at the same time mocking women by saying “no, it wasn’t because she was a woman” is reductionist, divisive, and ignores the wider problem with the left and women.
I’m not a liberal feminist. I have solidarity with liberal feminists in very many struggles but I don’t see a reformist approach to gender inequality which trivialises economic oppression or attempts to take economic oppression of women as an isolated part of the class system that can be used to fight for gender equality as a holistic or workable direction to travel on.
I am a Marxist feminist, so I believe in class ceilings not glass ceilings. I get that women in the middle classes are massively frustrated by being overlooked for promotion and to a point as a member of a democratic union I will always join the fight to highlight and try to remove these barriers. But other than in a broad trades union context it doesn’t resonate with my world. When you have faced economic struggles that go beyond promotion opportunities being thwarted to family survival it can be incredibly alienating and painful to hear the liberal feminist line on glass ceilings and promotion even though you know that they are right that it is a massive injustice to have gender inequality in the push to get to the top. My world involves women (and men) at the bottom and many of them have aspirations to rise up which hit barriers way below the glass ceiling. Even beyond that, I don’t think that structually fighting the glass ceiling will ever work because it is a model which retains the hierarchies that keep women, as an easy target for economic oppression due to childbearing and other physical differences, at the bottom. The solution for me is the picket line, not smashing through the glass ceiling.
And of course on a personal level as a union rep who deals daily with the impact of management at its very many levels I can see that there are “shades of manager” between decent people and outright bullies, but the role itself for me is oppressive.
I think this is at the heart of the complexities of organising a broad movement which unites liberal feminism and class-first activism.
That said, there are a lot of points that get missed in a of this building a broader movement business.
Firstly, it is pretty unusual for feminists to be solely liberal. Most who focus on the glass ceiling approach both feel frustration at incidents like Hilary not getting elected, women not leading the Labour party (and I think we should be very clear that most of the most outspoken feminism in the Labour party is liberal feminism) etc whilst still recognising women at the bottom get a raw deal. Some have nuanced and ambivalent views and others just believe really strongly in the power of women in leadership to make a difference and raise everyone up behind them. Liberal feminists are intelligent and caring and they don’t need patronising by the left as a way of changing their mindset.
The second issue is the problem the class-first left often has with feminism itself in unfairly categorizing women’s activism as the property of liberal or radical (not even going to go into them right now!) feminists. The assumption is that feminism is a bourgeoise movement in the right direction which needs to be utilised to build the class struggle. Women’s liberation will come through the overthrow of the class system. This is not just patronising and reductionist, it ignores the incredible work of intersectional feminists who identify and challenge privilege at every level of activism. It’s not enough to say affluent and educated women need to recognize their privilege and get behind the class struggle: class first leftists need to hold a mirror up to every level they operate at and look at how not just class but gender, disability, ethnicity, sexuality and all the other broad fronts the left fights on externally also need to be recognized within. You can’t just treat a women’s uprising as political capital and explain the strategy for the direction you believe the left can push the movement towards: you need to recognize that while many middle class women marched so did working class women, black women, lots of women who are already fighting for the things you want to achieve, and that these women have firstly agency but secondly shared struggles that the class-first left has not at this point presented itself as addressing.
With these points in mind, one key arena where the movement can strengthen its interconnection and solidarity is abortion rights. This needs to be a global fight back, not as a means to bringing people to another cause but of itself.
If you believe in class first and solidarity with women’s liberation, think on this. Yesterday Vice President Pence became the first VP to address the US March for Life in Washington. At that event he promised that Trump would remove the funding for abortion in the US. The only abortion funded in the US takes place through Medicaid where the woman’s life is deemed to be at risk. So Pence effectively proclaimed a death sentence for women in poverty if they seek out an abortion. Alongside this, Trump’s move to cut any funding globally to health programmes which even suggest abortion as part of wider reproductive choice gives an additional death sentence to women in impoverished and or wartorn countries. This is a women’s issue and a class issue and it is about them killing us.
While I have focused on the complexities in the left of uniting movements with shared goals but different ideology, there is another issue to be addressed in this call out to support the pro-choice fight back.
Pro-choice is not pro or anti abortion. It simply means respect for women as rational decision makers. Many women (and men) are anti-abortion on a personal level whilst supporting choice more widely. This may be because they see the evidence that clamping down on abortion economically actually increases abortion rates, especially if it comes hand in hand with hard-core conservative refusal to engage in promoting or funding contraception. Or it may be because they see their religious beliefs as personal whilst respecting wider democracy over theocracy. If this is you, please support the pro-choice fight back.
As a Marxist feminist, I also think we need to look at how austerity and attacks on the NHS restrict choice too. Just as every woman should be able to freely access information about abortion and abortion itself, women who want children are having that choice taken from them by our society. Support universal free childcare. Support action to tackle child poverty, lone parent poverty, family poverty, and of course fight to defend health and education if you really believe in choice. Fight to defend our NHS, fight for Sure Start, fight for a national education service. Fight academisation, grammar schools, private schooling and tuition fees. Fight for every child to get a fair chance.
On 20th May this year the annual March for Life takes place in Birmingham. Birmingham is specifically targeted because it set up the BPAS. You can find out about joining the counter-demonstration here, and I urge you to do so. Just as the extremism of groups like the EDL bring large mobilisations on our streets to protest the message of intimidation, so should a mobilisation against women’s agency. Which means all women, not just the liberal feminists who have given so much energy and activism to this issue. It is a necessary part of a global fight back.
To my lovely baby
You belong to you. Grow as big and as bright as you need to. You are allowed to take up space in the world. Your body is your body and no-one but you has the right to decide what to do with it. Your body is yours to run and jump and try to fly.
You have no duty to decorate yourself or to be an ornament to look at. But no-one has the right to criticise you if you want to use yourself as a canvas to express yourself.
You are always thinking and always talking. I am sorry for when I don’t listen but it happens because I am tired, not because I want you to stop. No-one has the right to try to silence you. Sometimes people will be intimidated by the clever woman you grow to be. Be patient when people take longer than you but never ashamed of your sharp mind. I know that you are not a boastful child and you should not be made to feel like you cannot ask questions or challenge “common sense”.
You are so full of love and energy. Never change. There is so much darkness in the world but love is the power to brighten it.
When you were two you used to sing your “No”song and it’s still a word you use a lot. As frustrating as it can be for me, please don’t ever lose the belief that you can say no to anything.
You may well find your energy means you are pulled in lots of directions. Please don’t ever feel guilty for taking time for yourself, and please never let another blame you for putting your energy into the things you love and believe in.
There are lots of things society will be looking for from you that I have not really given you a role model for. I’m not demure, I’m not houseproud, and I look nothing like the images of women you have been saturated with by this world. All of those things are ok if you choose them but never feel that they are things you have to be.
My Megan, I love you so much and I am so proud of everything you are. I am always with you, and even when I can’t be there and person, you carry my love with you. I will be there when you ask a question, when you stand up for others, when you cry over things other people think are silly.
We are all fighting for you and for all the children who will live through what this world is bringing. We will not let them win.
I trained to teach in FE in 2004 and since then have had the privilege of sharing the journeys of hundreds of learners as they progress through college and on to bright futures. I work in adult education, and my learners come in with a load of barriers. The most common are mental health issues, domestic abuse, juggling childcare and work, poverty, and unhappy memories of their previous educational experiences. Some we lose; many more go on to share their life experiences, sharpen their skills, and take the next step.
I genuinely love working in adult education and my time in the classroom is precious to me. However working in FE also comes with a whole load of other exhausting baggage.
FE teachers are teachers, mentors, counsellors, but also full time administrators. Our students are increasingly held back by problems with how wider society is run, from demanding bosses (who have them on zero hours contracts meaning they miss lessons to pay their bills) to bedroom tax evictions.
In 2016 there was a collective liberal facepalm. Divisions in the UK continued to build in the debate surrounding Brexit and there were shockwaves when the result came through. There is a picture being painted of an illiterate, angry and selfish working class, blind to the economic implications of cutting our ties to the EU and determined to grasp a sense of control through strengthening their ownership of the one thing austerity cannot take away: the nation. The nation and its borders, its services from housing to health, and of course national identity itself.
I don’t recognise that picture in the people I know who voted out, and I think the energy that went into recriminations over the out vote has been a real collective failure. Brexit was effectively a public schoolboy bun-fight between appeasing big capital over the free market and stoking up nationalist populism, and what we need now more than ever is a collective unity on the left to deal with the aftermath as the big boys (and girl) clearly don’t have a clue on what to do with the mess they have made.
What I do know is that free access to education at all ages is the vital seed needed to grow a healthy democracy. Further education – in our colleges and our communities – has to be a priority if we want change.
For Further Education to be allowed to deliver all that it can for our troubled society, it needs a radical reinvestment, not just in terms of funding but also in terms of belief. My students and colleagues never fail to amaze me in terms of what they pull off in incredibly challenging circumstances, but we could do so much more. For that to happen though, as well as investment, we need to fix the following flaws at the heart of how our colleges and wider FE is run.
1. The lie that 50% of student journeys are failing at any one time.
One of the greatest ironies of FE, given that it is part of the education sector, is the mind-numbing lack of intelligent oversight which has delivered the Orwellian standard that all learner achievements need to be above average. You can’t do it! It can’t be done! An average is the middle. This is not rocket science. This New Right mantra that competition drives up standards has been allowed to wreak complete havoc in FE with this ongoing pursuit of everything being above average, giving students the unhealthy label of failures whilst destroying teacher motivation and in some case careers. It is supposed to be a deadly sin to set an un-SMART target. But everyone being above average is just that. It is not achievable.
For Further Education to deliver, we need to move on from this meaningless total focus on how students compare with one another – a snapshot of what will inevitably be a curve with half on either side of the middle – to a holistic understanding that FE is about distance travelled. Not in the form of a reductionist obsession with success rates, but with a meaningful understanding of where a student’s starting point is, what barriers they have, and where they want to get to.
2. The panoptican as the standard for success
Ofsted. The obsession with Ofsted. In FE colleges across our country, policy never appears to have an independent validity, it is always about how we appear to external visitors. Are you highlighting your promotion of the Prevent strategy and British values? You need to for Ofsted. Does each learner have an individualised target and set of resources for your lesson? Are you embedding literacy, numeracy, E and D, employability, e-learning? You need to, and you need to provide detailed paperwork to show that you are for Ofsted. All of these things, of course, are valuable and things that we need to think about (as well as the desk time to actually do any thinking about). British values and Prevent are a different story. But the obsession with showing things are done means that everything becomes a shallow exercise to evidence something has been met. Similarly lesson observations, which could be so useful as a continuing peer-led tool in development, are a source of high anxiety and create pockets of unnecessary paperwork marathons across the year, taking away the valuable time needed to actually plan how we work with our learners to help them develop. And as for senior management, no-one even bothers pretending any more that policy is in any way holistic and student driven – everything is always done for those who assess us.
To establish a culture of development and growth in FE, we need to move on from the incessant focus on meeting external arbitrary standards to a focus on giving staff the trust and time they need to do their best. Stop the poisonous top-down pressure on staff and establish peer-based collective development strategies to allow us to grow together.
3. The lie that we need to “make” migrants learn English
From Cameron’s bravado over deporting spousal migrants who fail English tests to the latest cross-party social integration group’s demand that migrants learn English as soon as they enter the UK, there has been a consistent untruth told by politicians about where blame lies over language barriers. ESOL courses have been at the end of some of the most savage cuts to FE, with colleges across the UK reporting huge waiting lists as they have not got the resources to provide places for people who want to learn. To suggest that poor English levels result from a refusal to enter education is not only wrong, it is dangerous.
Now more than ever we need to look at how FE can work to heal and grow the strength of our communities. By investing properly in ESOL, we give people the voices they need to communicate and share in the community. As divisive rhetoric is used to stir up fear and alienation, this is needed now more than ever.
4. The belief that education should finish in your early twenties or before
In 2015 adult education, already under funded, was hit with a 24% cut. The cuts have been devastating, but are just part of a wider and nonsensical belief which frames how our education sector works. FE and in particular adult education is often referred to as “second chance” education, implying that it is a kindness bestowed on someone who has already messed up once, with no recognition of the barriers adult learners overcome. The structure of our education system is heavily weighted against working class women (who will be pitied or scorned if they have their kids early on) in particular. But the idea that education is something which happens at the start of our life and is then over is short-changing society as a whole. Why do we have to learn everything we should know early on? And why is there no room not just for retraining but for life long learning as a way of continual skills and knowledge development for the workforce and as a bridge to wide participatory democracy?
Further Education colleges have the power to transform communities for the better. We need to move beyond the obsession with “business need” and “skills” that overshadow the entirety of how the sector is run and have the imagination to see what access to education for its own sake, not just for meeting the needs of businesses, could transform society.
5. The obsession with competition
Neoliberalism and the New Right philosophy that we raise standards in education by creating a free market and competition took root in FE early on. Since incorporation in the 1990s this has meant a culture of fiefdoms in our colleges. Principles and corporate boards have high levels of power over things are run, student input is considered from the point of view of consumer feedback rather than as democratic participation, and staff and communities are shut out of decision making. Local colleges are referred to as competitors. FE has lost sight of the idea that it should be a wide reaching network of opportunity which any community can plug into and just like the students, colleges themselves are in a constant state of measuring themselves against one another. How much effort is wasted on each year on persuading individual students that they should pick one college over another when we should be persuading them of the value of FE itself? How may opportunities for colleges to work together to meet the needs of an individual have been lost in the self-preservation culture of winning through out-performing? Last year as the FE commissioner undertook area reviews to create “fewer, more efficient” colleges (read – mergers and cuts) we ended up in the position where the under-funding of the sector had to be blamed on the reckless finances of individual colleges, with a new emphasis on colleges working together with their competitors to deliver services like apprenticeships – whilst still competing, obviously.
Further Education should belong to the communities it exists in and wider society – there is no place for corporations and the lack of accountability and hostility that a corporate ethos brings. To transform the democracy of our society we need to bring collectivity back into colleges. Colleges which are social assets and not corporations will transform communities for the better.
So, how do we fix these 5 fatal flaws? I believe there are two key steps to take.
- To defend our colleges we need active unions. You can join UCU, the union for FE lecturing staff here. What we also need is the recognition that Further Education is too precious to lose. UCU needs strategies to defend education which go beyond hand-holding members out of the building and releasing statements to actively fighting for our colleges. I am supporting Jo McNeill for GS and the left slate in the UCU election this February and also standing for Midlands NEC rep. I would encourage all UCU members to back the left slate for a union which goes beyond a service model and fights for education itself.
- Support Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a National Education Service. A national education service has the power to transform society. Lifelong learning means skills needs are consistently met – but it also means we are all raised up. Education is a positive source of empowerment, it allows us to question and critique the way society is run to improve it for the better, and it creates spaces for us to share our stories and learn from one another. We need to take the opportunity together to fight for education for everyone.
After talking to a number of members in various different branches recently, I realise not everybody knows that we are about to receive ballot papers which will allow you the opportunity to vote for a new UCU leadership.
This election period is important, as well as the annual election of NEC members, this time you also have the opportunity to vote for a new General Secretary. The GS election only comes around once in every FIVE years.
I’m publishing this blog post to ask those of you who are aware of the upcoming election to raise it’s importance with your colleagues and professional networks. Turnout in the last General Secretary election was only 12%.
This time, there are just two candidates, Sally Hunt and me.
The ballot opens on February 1st and closes on March 1st. If you don’t receive your ballot paper, make sure you request one asap…
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On Monday 2nd January, Unite West Midlands official Gerard Coyne addressed a Birmingham group of supporters as part of his campaign to take the Unite leadership from Len McCluskey.
He framed the speech around the issue of border control, stating
“There is one principle on which the UK government should not even begin to negotiate. That is over the question of control of our borders… for the many Britons facing insecurity in the job market, who rely on public services such as the NHS and state schools, and who need affordable homes, the presence of a very large number of foreign nationals has added to the pressures they already face at a time of austerity.
Theresa May and other ministers should not wait until Article 50 has been triggered to set out a negotiating position on free movement of labour. They should be saying now, without equivocation, that the issue is non-negotiable. There can be no compromise on the principle of taking back control of our borders.”
Trades Unionists have experienced first hand the impact of austerity for our members. We have seen wages drop, hours and workload rise, and in some cases safety being put at risk. There has been one group and one group alone to benefit from this attack on the workforce, and that group is the rich, not migrant workers.
At a time when hate crime is rising, with foreign workers increasingly at risk of being attacked on our streets, it is truly irresponsible for Coyne to use his platform to chase populist votes. Instead of highlighting the lack of investment in our infrastructure and public services, he chose to pander to the scapegoating of migrants. This was a clear betrayal of union members who rely on his leadership in organising to take on the attacks on pay and conditions.
When Trades Unionists allow, or worse, encourage the story to be told that it is migrant workers who destroy jobs and conditions, we do the bosses’ work for them. We only ever win when we have solidarity as workers and fight together for better conditions for all. When we allow groups of workers to be used as scapegoats for the failures of employers and the state, we compete against one another for scraps instead of fighting together for victory.
We therefore condemn Gerard Coyne’s comments in Birmingham as divisive, counterproductive, and dangerous for West Midlands workers.
Rhiannon Lockley (Chair, West Midlands UCU)
Nicky Downes (Equalities officer, Coventry NUT)
Doug Morgan (President, Birmingham NUT)
Andrew Scattergood (Brigade Chair, West Midlands FBU)
Kirsten Forkert (Higher Education Chair, West Midlands UCU)
Dave Muritu (National Equality Chair and Black Members Rep, UCU)
Lou Harrisen Powis (Assistant Branch Secretary, Sandwell Unison)
Martin Lynch (President, Dudley NUT)
Matt Raine (Branch Secretary, Birmingham University Unison)
Sharon Campion (Joint Branch Secretary, Sandwell Unison)
Pete Jackson (Vice Chair, Birmingham South PCS)
Paul Mackney (UNITE member, former General Secretary of UCU/Natfhe 1997-2007, President Birmingham TUC 1979-84)
Rick Evans (Unite WM)
Chris Spence (CWU and Unite Community)
Sharon McCourt (Unite Community)
Ruth Rosenau (Unite Community)
Sasha Simic (Shop Steward USDAW C133 branch)
Aaron Bennett (Unite)
Joe Cairns (UNITE COMMUNITY Stoke & North Staffs Branch)
Clare Thomas (Unite)
Jo McNeil (President Liverpool, NEC and GS candidate, UCU)
Michael Wongsam (Unite Communities)
Rita Wright (Equality regional officer, UCU West Midlands retired members)
Brett Davis (Unite Branch Secretary WM7212)
Nita Sanghera (West Midlands women’s officer, UCU)
Jean Evanson (Division secretary, Shropshire NUT)
Richard Milner (Unite chair, EM/NN14)
David Kersey (Communications Officer, Coventry UNISON)
Dave Wyatt (Wolverhampton UNISON retired member)
Pete Bicknell (Lewisham Southwark College UCU)
John Baxter (retired UCU member)
Sean Wallis (UCL UCU vice president; UCU NEC member)
Frances Patterson (Retired member of Unison)
Lesley Kane (Open University UCU branch secretary)
Carlo Morelli (UCU NEC)
Christopher Denson (Joint Secretary Coventry NUT)
Tony Barnsley (Joint Branch Secretary, Sandwell General UNISON Branch)
Laura Miles (UCU retired member)
Andy Higginbottom (Kingston University UCU Branch Chair)
Carlos Conde Solares (UCU)
Geoff Abbott (UCU)
Elaine White (UCU NEC Women members’ rep)
Bob Jeffery (Campus Convenor, UCU, President, Sheffield TUC)
Sean Vernell (UCU NEC, vice chair Further Education Committee)
Statement also endorsed by Red Labour
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If you would like to be added to this statement, please comment with your name, union and union position (if any) below.
This week ballot papers will arrive for a UCU NEC by-election for FE disabled members rep.
I will be voting for Elane Heffernan from Hackney college who is a brilliant activist who understands:
1. That equality issues need to be at the heart of our union
2. That education access and the rights of education workers are not given freely by an aggressive right-wing government: they can only come from a strong union which is willing to act.
Every time I have heard Elane speak on an issue she is powerful and clear in her points. She has also challenged me and changed my mind on issues too – anyone who knows how stubborn I am will know that is no small feat!
But Elane is not just someone who makes you think – she is also a doer – from leading a delegation up to brum to show practical solidarity to the branches there at the deep end of the area review when we took national strike action, to recently winning better conditions for disabled staff at her college.
Elane is inspirational in her fight for women’s rights. As an often exhausted mum who sees all the barriers to participation at workplaces but also in the union for women like me, I know Elane will fight those barriers. So she will get my vote.
All sectors, including FE, HE, ACE and prison education vote in this election. Ballots are open for 4 weeks. Please leave a comment if you would like a leaflet.
UCU women member’s standing committee
UCU need Elane Heffernan as disabled FE rep on the NEC. She is a long term activist for disabled people’s rights who also fights for all equality issues, and has a long history of standing up to racism. Elane will work for a union which fights for better working conditions and to defend education. Her recent branch victory, winning better conditions for disabled people, shows she has the skills and the resolve to win. As national equalities chair I encourage everyone to vote for Elane and vote for a fighting, equality centred union.
Chair UCU equality committee, national black members rep (NEC)