The conference of the National Union of Teachers over the Easter weekend was a strange beast: a mixture of genuine support for a sustained programme of strike action with a stifling lack of open debate.
The conference voted to ballot members for a timetable of strikes in response to the government's education White Paper. To give the union legal cover, and to draw in members already in academies, the strike demand will be for national terms and conditions for teachers (at present academies are not bound by the national Burgundy Book and Blue Book; even in non-academies there is no national pay scale and no nationally negotiated contract). The union will also campaign politically against the whole White Paper package: forced academisation, abolition of qualified teacher status, funding cuts.
The union will ballot from late May, and plans a national strike before the summer holiday with further strikes in the autumn term.
It's a shame that the radical mood wasn't reflected in other debates. The new primary tests have been reviled by teachers and educational experts alike; parents too have been vocal in their condemnation of these worthless assessments.
Yet the motions aimed at organising a full boycott of testing were diminished and watered down into the usual rhetoric of campaigns, discussions, and testing the water. Despite some excellent and impassioned speeches, it's now just another green t-shirt policy, achieving nothing but slogans and delayed to the point of non-existence for the second year running.
There were many powerful speeches over the weekend, but their impact was often dissipated through stifling of debate. Often the right moves to close down debates before amendments calling for deeper levels of action can be heard. This year incompetence and lack of understanding also figured; there was at least one incident of a self appointed floor manager immediately regretting an impulsive decision to close down a debate early.
A number of first-time delegates expressed deep disappointment at the manner in which debates were conducted. Perhaps this view came to be more widely held. As the conference wore on, moves to close debate early were increasingly rejected by conference, though that came too late to save key debates on some important issues.
On the whole debate and political creativity were in short supply this year. The nearest we came to lively political debate was an attempt to pass a motion on the EU referendum, which would have committed the union to campaign for Brexit.
The motion, moved by left-wingers but flying in the face of every socialist principle, was defeated, but unfortunately mainly on the basis of an amendment and speeches which relied on the argument that the union should not be political. We think the union should be political!
The rank-and-file network LANAC met on several occasions over the weekend, making its focus the organising that we need over the next two months. The NUT has called for local associations to take the lead in the runup to the ballot, and LANAC can and should take that up.
The commitments against the White Paper gave signs that the majority of the executive have caught up with the mood of the members, yet a perverse mood of caution, in both debate and action, is still with us, preventing conference from achieving what it should.
The battles that will have to be fought this year can only be won through courage, sharp debate and solidarity; the NUT has all of this, despite what negative voices argue.
We must not allow the victories of this conference to be distorted by premature triumphalism or stifled by fear.