This week, the UCU union is about to launch the first of five ballots in defence of pensions, jobs, conditions and pay in higher and further education.
These ballots are crucial, and not just for the staff in the sectors. The rest of the trade union movement will be watching the reaction of UCU members to the cuts.
It is all the more unfortunate then that some members of the union have chosen this time to mount a sectarian attack on their colleagues on the national executive committee (NEC).
Last week three members of the NEC circulated a document to all branches. Entitled “Reclaim the Union”, it accused the UCU Left group of having a nefarious agenda to “take over” the UCU.
Simultaneously, the Times Higher Education—the trade magazine for university staff—ran a story about the document, and about anxieties that the SWP was engaged in a “takeover” plot. It quoted the general secretary, Sally Hunt, as saying that union strategy was being “directed by bodies outside UCU rather than our own members”.
It is a traditional, anti‑communist, “red scare” campaign. In fact, the policy of the union on defending pensions and fighting the cuts was determined by successive union conferences, and was overwhelmingly supported by branch delegates. These scare stories resurface every year—and just at election time.
This is certainly the worst time for factionalism. It can only draw some attention away from the current campaigns.
Political disagreement over strategy is as inevitable as it is healthy in any democratic organisation. “Factionalism”, however, arises from prioritising factional interests over members’ policy decisions, and pursuing intrigue for positional advantage.
Unfortunately, this is precisely what the current “red-baiting” campaign is all about—unprincipled electioneering by a faction. There is no plot by the left to “take over” the UCU.
What the UCU needs is campaigning unity to maximise turnout, and for “yes” votes in the ballots.
Its elections should be fought on policy differences and candidates’ records, not on political prejudice. Vigorous debate is desirable but we should reserve our fighting spirit and vitriol for our real enemies.