by Patrick Murphy, newly elected NUT executive member
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference, meeting in Torquay over the Easter bank holiday weekend, confirmed what serious left activists in the union have been saying for some time. The potential for a fight back against the government’s agenda for education exists, but we will not clear the roadblock of our right-wing leadership unless we rebuild and politically renew the left.
On pensions, on the Education Bill, on religious schools, large sections of the left at the conference repeatedly failed to stand up for basic socialist principles. This is despite the fact that the left is stronger in the NUT than in the vast majority of unions. Socialist Teachers' Alliance (STA) and Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union (CDFU) meetings throughout the weekend were well attended, with about 150 delegates attending a meeting on Education Bill organised by West Yorkshire associations and the Campaign Teacher newspaper, yet when it came to the crunch many left activists were simply not willing to stand up to the leadership.
The pensions debate was over before it started, due to a single line hidden away in the executive’s report on salaries and superannuation, which endorsed the acceptance of a retirement age of 65 for new entrants.
Normally it is CDFU activists who go through document like this with a fine tooth-comb; in this case, unfortunately, CDFU members agreed with the leadership, having voted for the pensions sell out. Not that this absolves the AWL or the rest of the STA (whose members on the executive voted against the sell out) from our failure to pay attention; but a left united in resisting the government would never have fallen for this sort of trick.
When conference accepted the executive report, union president Judy Moorhouse ruled that this deleted every motion and amendment demanding a retirement age of 60 for all teachers. This was particularly bad as the conference did, on a close card vote, defeat the right-wing motion positively endorsing the pensions deal, suggesting that there was a mood for a row on this issue.
What about the Education Bill? Despite numerous amendments being submitted to the executive’s emergency motion, neither the CDFU nor the STA caucus discussed the industrial strategy the left should be putting forward to defeat the Bill. The result was a bland amendment calling for the executive to “explore” possibilities for strike action, without a time scale or other concrete commitment.
No surprise then that it was accepted by the leadership, as were all the amendments in this debate except the one proposed by AWL delegates, which demanded a ballot for strikes this Autumn over the threat which the Education Bill poses to our pay, conditions and negotiating rights. This amendment was the only one not discussed, since the majority of the left acquiesced in moving the debate on as soon as the rest had been passed.
To tell the truth, much of the left seems a little embarrassed by the whole idea of industrial action against the Bill, preferring to put forward a more radical variant of the current campaign of postcard writing and polite lobbies of MPs. We need to win the argument that industrial action and broader, community-based campaigning are not mutually exclusive but mutually essential if we are to stop the massive attack on both children and teachers which the Bill represents.
But there was worse to come. In the religious schools debate, sections of the left — this time primarily in the STA — were not just without a strategy but actively on the wrong side. The amendment endorsing faith schools was written by longstanding STA leader Bernard Regan and supported by the SWP, who repeated their capitulation to the Islamic right in the student movement with an astonishing leaflet arguing that opposition to faith schools is a betrayal of anti-racism.
Fortunately, delegates refused to behave like the proverbial Christmas-loving Turkeys and followed the example of the National Union of Students conference by voting down a pro-faith-schools motion backed by the platform. Unfortunately, they also voted down the only anti-faith schools motion which there was time to discuss, endorsing only the executive’s tepid criticisms of the religious take over of our schools. To their credit, the majority of the CDFU did oppose faith schools (and the CDFU organised a well-attended debate on the issue), but the left’s failure to unite on socialist principles left the union with a confused position.
So: we now have a National Union of Teachers which has accepted that in future teachers will have to work five years longer to get their pensions, which hesitates over striking to oppose the greatest threat our school system has seen for decades, and which refuses to campaign for a secular education system. In large part, moreover, this is because the left’s hesitancy and political failings has let the leadership off the hook.
The result of these antics was the squandering of a mood of determination and anger which existed, in however unclear and diffuse a form, among at least a big minority of delegates — not just on pensions but on basic workplace issues like workload and Teaching and Learning Responsibilities, where successful industrial action over the last year meant that the conference did agree a tougher policy.
The job of socialists in the union is to harness this mood in a fight for a different kind of education system — a really comprehensive one, in which the needs of children and their communities comes above the financial demands and academic and religious fetishes of capital. A serious campaign, industrial and political, to defeat the Education Bill is where this fight needs to start.