By Liam Conway
On Thursday 22 June the Labour Party unveiled its a policy document on education: Diversity and Excellence. The report recommends the preservation of grant maintained schools (renaming them “foundation” schools), thus perpetuating the two tier-system of education the Tories introduced with their education reforms. The same document says does not recommend any increase in funds for education. This is, as one old-style Labourite, Roy Hattersley, has said, nothing short of a “repudiation of the principle of comprehensive education”. (See next page).
More cause for dismay in the education fightback was the four to one vote against strike action in the recent National Union of Teachers ballot over excessive class sizes.
The decision to hold the ballot was won at the Easter conference of the union despite the opposition of the Executive. In the weeks preceding the conference there had been successful one-day strikes in the areas worst affected by the cuts — strikes that had the overwhelming support of local parents. A broad campaign of parents, governors and teachers — Fight Against Cuts in Education — had been set up. What has happened to the fightback, and what can we do about the retreat by Labour and the NUT leadership?
First, it is worth looking a little closer at a breakdown of the ballot figures. There were majorities for strike action in only six NUT branches — all of them in Inner London, where cuts have not been on the same scale as the rest of the country. Even areas such as Notts and Oxfordshire, which face drastic job cuts and have held successful local strikes and rallies this year, did not vote yes in this ballot. An immediate threat to jobs and conditions does not a guarantee a fightback. This underlines the need for a clear and honest assessment of the causes of this setback and a broad political response to McAvoy and Co.
An incredible degree of effort was needed by activists in Notts, Oxford and elsewhere to get support for the strikes which took place last term. Teachers along with other workers are not bursting at the seams to tear into the Tories with industrial action: the basic political situation is unfavourable. Since Easter we have also had a barrage of media and right-wing NUT and Labour propaganda against strike action. And this is why, for example, there was a 73% majority amongst Notts members for strike action in April and a majority of over 60% against strike action in June. In more buoyant times, it might not have been so easy for Doug McAvoy and the right wing to scuttle conference decisions.
The result highlights the importance of leadership, of wresting it away from McAvoy, who without even consulting the rest of the Executive, spent something like £200,000 sending materials to NUT members’ homes, warning of the dire consequences of strike action. Even the best organised left NUT branch leaders cannot compete with this scale of propaganda. In the recent election for General Secretary the left stood against McAvoy. As Bernard Regan of the Socialist Teachers Alliance wrote: “the defeat of Doug McAvoy… would have had an impact on… the recent strike ballot.” But the left lost that election by 38,000 votes to 37,000. Some on the left — very irresponsibly given the closeness of the vote — abstained. So where do we go from here?
We should not get disheartened by the result. This year’s strike action was no more an indication that NUT members would follow socialists onto the barricades of revolution, than June’s national ballot result is a reflection that they have faith in McAvoy’s strategy on the cuts. The result reflects mostly a lack of confidence among teachers and a hopeful expectation that Labour will both win the next election and deliver them from the impact of Tory education policy. Of course that hope has now been dashed with the publication Diversity and Excellence.
The left must address the implications of the ever-closer relationship between Blair, Blunkett and the NUT leadership, particularly Doug McAvoy. Whilst Blair and Blunkett were preparing their sell-out on education policy, McAvoy announced he too was in favour of a change to the union’s policy on grant maintained status. Mc Avoy is determined to ensure that the main teacher’s union does not oppose the policies of the next Labour government. McAvoy assumes he can determine what the union wants out of a Labour Government. This is particularly undemocratic as the NUT is not affiliated to the Labour Party and the structures do not exist for rank and file members to decide on these issues. Above all the left must stop ignoring the Labour Party — because it is too right wing, or “irrelevant”. McAvoy and Blair represent two faces of “New Labour”. We have to fight on both fronts.
The NUT ballot result should be seen as a snapshot of the mood of the members. The issues on which the left united around and campaigned so successfully on at conference will not go away. McAvoy and his co-thinkers have no strategy to defeat the cuts beyond waiting for Labour.
Both Blair and McAvoy think they can get away with anything and use Machiavellian methods to do so, as did Blair over Clause Four and McAvoy over the conduct of the strike ballot. But both will come unstuck over the issue of Grant Maintained (GM) schools. McAvoy has already been forced to climb down over the issue by NUT members. There is a great potential inside the Labour Party to organise a campaign to defend comprehensive education and for increased funding.
With the publication of Diversity and Excellence, in the run-up to the General Election and after the election of a Labour Government there is going to be a fierce battle over Labour’s education policy. We need to get teachers, parents, FACE activists and governors into the Labour Party to participate in the debate.
Part of the fight in the Labour Party should be about winning support for the fight against immediate cuts. This too can be a “popular” issue in the Labour Party — for instance in Notts many local branches are affiliating to FACE.
There are countless opportunities for the left in NUT (organised in the Campaign for a Democratic Fighting Union and the Socialist Teachers’ Alliance) to unite and organise joint campaigns: over elections for national officers positions; over a Special Conference to discuss pay next term; over the FACE demonstration on 30 September; over the campaign for public sector action in the run-up to the government’s November budget.
All our campaigns should relate to Labour Party policy and putting the pressure on Labour in the run-up to the General Election. Now may even be the right time to start a debate about NUT affiliation to the Labour Party. Certainly the left needs to intervene directly into battles inside the Labour Party. We may find that there is a little substance to McAvoy’s “New NUT” as there is to Blair’s “New Labour”.