Sorting out the left in UCU

Submitted by AWL on 12 February, 2020 - 10:11
Jo Grady, UCU general secretary

As UCU members in higher education prepare to strike — action begins on 20 February — voting is underway in both HE and FE sectors of the union for members of the National Executive Committee and a new Vice-President.

The VP election sees a contest between the two long-standing union factions, UCU Left (dominated by the SWP) and the Independent Broad Left (on the right). Margot Hill, the left candidate, is Branch Secretary at Croydon College and has recently led local strikes over pay and conditions. Janet Farrar, her opponent, has no such track record.

It was a surprise to many activists, therefore, to see a prominent supporter of the union’s newest grouping, a loose slate linked by support for the new General Secretary Jo Grady, post on social media that he was backing Farrar in preference to Hill.

One of the “Grady4GS” list has since asked for her name to be removed from it: this is Rhian Keyse, branch VP at Exeter University and an anti-casualisation activist both locally and nationally. Solidarity urges a vote for Rhian in the NEC elections, and also for her fellow Exeter activist Mike Finn. Both were central to the protests over democracy at last year’s Congress and are solid independent left voices with a genuine commitment to rank-and-file activism.

Both the Grady4GS list and the UCU Left slate include some activists with impressive experience of building action locally, and belief in rank-and-file democracy. Neither list, however, deserves uncritical support.

The Grady4GS list has no clear platform beyond candidates’ vague agreement with Grady’s 2019 manifesto, and a sense of “backing the General Secretary”, while in practice UCU Left has a mixed record on engagement of members and local militancy.

Over last weekend the campaign entered a particularly vicious phase, with an anonymous website leaking confidential details of a union expulsion procedure against a member of UCU Left (concerning sexual harassment, bullying and an attempt to exclude another branch member) in an attack on that faction, especially national negotiator Jo McNeill, and on the union’s independent left-wing president Vicky Blake.

In a response, one of the women involved in the case has denounced this weaponisation of the allegations for factional gain.

While it is clear from her account that UCU processes failed when it came to supporting survivors and need urgent review, she is also right to oppose banning SWP members from the union, “just as I would not support a motion which suggests banning Labour Party members, Liberal Democrats, Conservative party members, practising Catholics or those who donate to Oxfam. All of these groups have had institutional failings with regard to sexual violence; but this does not mean all individual members are complicit in that violence, or that their institutional structures cannot be changed.”

For all the problems in UCU’s procedures, the offending activist was expelled from the union in 2017 (having previously been expelled from the SWP); the expulsion from UCU was announced publicly, and the decision was upheld by the Certification Officer following an appeal in late 2018. Parts of the case have therefore been in the public domain for some time.

Publishing a highly partial anonymous version of events mid-election when many of the participants are bound by confidentiality agreements — and when Blake and McNeill are part of the national negotiating team as UCU heads for strike action — is pure sectarianism which could backfire and undermine the strike, as well as a flagrant act of contempt for the well-being of survivors.

• Since this article was written two other survivors have published a critical account of the UCU's processes and of the actions of members of UCU Left. This can be found here.

The response to the original blog referred to in the article can be found here.

A statement by Vicki Blake

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