I can't remember which comrade said it, but someone recently quipped the left has become relevant enough to witch-hunt again. And one place where the ducking stool has come out from the cupboard is in the University and College Union.
This morning's Times Higher reports the union is in the throes of a political crisis. On the one hand there is a strong UCU Left challenge to incumbent general secretary Sally Hunt. On the other union officers are threatening strike action after being criticised for their role in previous protests and moves to increase their accountability to lay members.
As with the NUS, the fees protests were bound to produce stresses and strains within the UCU. Like the students there are significant numbers of academic staff who've been lifted by the militant mood and would like their union to reflect that. The decision of a large number of NEC members to critically but unconditionally back the winter protests is not the action of an unrepresentative minority, but reflects wider sentiment among the union's members.
Facing a barrage of criticism and a possible challenge to her position, rather than defending herself politically Sally Hunt has reached for her weapon of choice: red baiting. In the THS piece, she is quoted as saying other HE-related unions are viewed as "appendages" in the UCU Left's grand strategy, and this itself "seems to be directed by bodies outside UCU rather than our own members".
Hmm. Haven't we been here before? In her 2006 election campaign she tried to stir up support by attacking the SWP. She then wrote “I believe that UCU should be a politically independent, industrially confident union and I am disappointed that political parties such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and others are seeking to influence this election. I think they should leave the decision to you - the members”.
Her dark mutterings about outside influences is indicative of the bureaucratic mindset Hunt inhabits. It's beyond her ken that members might be unhappy with her four years of steady-as-she-goes leadership and her backing of the lacklustre NUS president Aaron Porter and chums. In this view of the world, opposition springs not from legitimate grievances but the machinations of a cabal of Trots intent on annexing the union to their nefarious schemes. It's a logic readers of the mainstream press are familiar with. Outside agitation is the explanation of choice politicians, bosses, media worthies, and bureaucrats sezie upon to write off incidences of sustained protest and unofficial strike action. It's a convenient trope, a simple (and simplistic) narrative that avoids the inconvenience of realising the state of affairs they preside over isn't all that, and shields their egos from detailed and devastating criticisms.
What about the substance of her accusation, that leftist UCU members are pursuing a strategy determined outside the union? I'd say that's bollocks. The SWP is strong in the UCU because it's active and its members have built up a base for the party through industrial and political struggle. Put simply, it has support because it's won support. I'm not the SWP's biggest fan by any means, but I know a thing or two about how revolutionary organisations are run. As a general rule union fractions of Leninist parties are operated and directed by the trade unionists who belong to that fraction. They know better than anyone else in their party the balance of forces, the mood of the workforce, and the operation of the union bureaucracy. In theory they're subject to the diktats of the industrial department/organiser, but in practice it just doesn't play out like that. A union fraction run directly by the central committee is a fraction that won't make much headway. What Hunt finds particularly objectionable is not "outside groups" per se but the fact SWP members are the backbone of an internal movement seeking to hold her to account.
The UCU doesn't wear fences, tank traps and pill boxes like a necklace. It is not North Korea. It's a trade union made up of members with their own opinions and politics. SWP members have as much right to promote their party and their alternative strategy inside the union as anyone else. Hunt might not like it, but that's life in the labour movement for you. Unfortunately for he, this time round the witch-hunting language won't wash. The next gensec election will be more about policy, vision, and strategic direction than the last. If all Hunt can say for herself is "oh noes, the SWPs are teh evilz", then she's up shit creek before the campaign has started.