Thursday 6 January 2011

Sally Hunt vs the SWP

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.


Tom Coles said...

@Sally Hunt, real people have real opinions - you follow them, they do not have to follow you.

Get with it. UCU Left have a great chance.

Phil said...

Good comment from Prianikoff on the Socialist Unity cross post:

It’s a bit of an irony that the SWP are now being red-baited in the UCU.

They must be doing something right.

A few years back they wouldn’t even have stood for union positions.

But anyone who is open about their politics when they stand and gets elected is on firm ground.
Of course any rank and file organisation in the union needs to put forward a variety of candidates from different political backgrounds to avoid this sort of attack.

It’s noteworthy that the retired former General Secretary Paul Mackney of NATFHE (no supporter of the SWP), is now a leading light in the Coalition of Resistance and adopts a position well to the left of Sally Hunt. In fact, I spotted him supporting the Student March on December 9th.

The fact remains that Sally Hunt, Brendan Barber and the other assorted union leaders who staged the embarrassing rally on the Embankment on December 9th were made to look completely marginal to the events taking place that day. They were a collection of (well-paid) generals with no army, standing on the top of a bus addressing a pitiful crowd of a few hundred members.

When some students arrived to tell them about what was happening in the kettle in Parliament Square, they couldn’t make them selves heard above the PA. It was almost like a scene out of Hitchcock film.
At that point many union members left the rally and headed in the direction of Whitehall in disgust.

The TUC and unions were still stuck in the parliamentary lobbying mode that they’d initiated in the early Autumn. But events were rapidly moving beyond that.

Aaron Porter, Sally Hunt and Brendan Barber should have responded to the students call, joined the demonstration from ULU and not called what appeared to be a diversionary rally.

They now have to build seriously for the big March TUC demonstration against the cuts and that should include a discussion about having coordinated strike action to accompany it, as Len McCluskey has argued for.

Ideally, the national demonstration should be a prelude to a one-day General Strike. That will help rebuild the confidence of trade unionists in their ability to take strike action and break down the sectionalism that is reinforced by the TU laws.

Union leaders who don’t stay ahead of the mass movement are vulnerable to replacement.

modernity said...

Been wondering this for years,

What is UCU's total membership?

And how does that compare to the figure of those eligible for membership in Britain's Universities and colleges?

Anyone really know?

Anonymous said...

I dont disagree with the sentiments of your post, but is it really a 'witchunt' to say the SWP are involved in something when they are?

Outing individual members so that they would be sacked or victimised in some other by way would be a witchunt, is there any evidence this is happening?

Looks to me like while union miltants can build up a base of support by organising and standing up for members their rivals know that SWP membership is not an appealing charactestic in an election.

Pointing that out is not a witchunt, its politics, even if its politics we dont agree with.

I always support grassroots militant candidates in union elections if I can, but I'm more reluctant to back those with a central committee behind them myself.


Phil said...

It hasn't risen to the level of witch hunt yet, but it's certainly red baiting. This isn't simply a case of "politics we don't agree with," it's the politics of the gutter. Just what one would expect from a union bureaucrat running scared from a rising social movement. (And btw, I'm not the Phil who runs this site.)

Anonymous said...

hmm, Ive criticised my own union leadership in the past for having its direction decided by political forces outside the membership (ie New Labour).

I thought that was legitimate criticism. Isnt this similiar? Is there no way of arguing back politically without hyperbolic accusations?

Dont get me wrong, I can see why people are cautious about witchunts, given recent experience in other unions. But that is not happening here, at least not yet.


Phil said...

I couldn't tell you the numbers, Mod. But my former branch had 200 or so members and I think we stood at roughly 50% density.

One of the problems with the UCU is a hangover of the merger between NATFHE and the AUT. It's not a straight split, but more a problem specific to the AUT side. There is a significant number of academics who believe they shouldn't have a union but a professional association. Some have carried this into the union and as such form a segment who are uncomfortable with the usual trappings of trade unionism.

If there's anyone Hunt's red baiting would go down fairly well with, it would be them.

Phil said...

Phil, you confused me there a moment! While I was reading I was like 'I can't remember writing this'.

Danny, a witch hunt isn't happening. But the language deployed by Hunt is reminiscent of one.

Anonymous said...

Is there a difference then between 'the language of a witchunt', 'redbaiting' and a straightforward political criticism?

I think we really undermine the reality of the former by reacting to every criticism of groups like the SWP like this.

They just arent very popular, and for good reason, although some of their activists are respected, for equally good reasons. Im sure they are well capable of arguing back against Sally Hunt themselves.


Phil said...

I think there is. Here's the difference between Hunt's criticisms of the SWP, and what you said earlier about Labour in your union. It turns on legitimacy.

I assume you and your comrades imply there is something illegitimate about Labour influence because it rests on bureaucratic enforcement rather than active support. Hunt's criticisms of the SWP are of a different order, it's a criticism from a bureaucratic standpoint trying to paint fractional *political* activity as illegitimate.

Yes, the SWP can get on fine without me. But I thought this was worth flagging up as this sort of thing will likely be more common in the near future.

Anonymous said...

Well the common factor is that both have an agenda separate to that of our members, and they are wide open to criticism on that basis.

Its a pity that good activists have an achilles heel
in attachments to such unpopular organisations.

However you will know the situation in your own union better than me, if you think its about the bureacracy moving against the rank and file then clearly you are right to speak against it.


Alex Dawson said...

In my union, "red-baiting" or bashing of members of left parties or sects is generally only undertaken by the fringe lunatic candidates.

In a recent election for the post of editing our unions magazine, an "investigative journalist" by the name of Mark Watts tried to stand on the basis of "unmasking" the NUJ Left-endorsed candidate. He went on to furiously attack the NUJ Left through his campaign material, website and through media like Private Eye, claiming that this "shadowy cabal" had undemocratically taken control of the NUJ and ludicrously likened it to a "cancer" that needed cutting out.

Have a look here:

I almost wish there were some truth in his wild assertions. The awful truth is that the NUJ Left is a loose network of socialists within the NUJ that exists largely as a friendly talking shop like a book club - not some well-organised political elite.

While what Watts did is clearly a far more extreme example of what Sally Hunt has insinuated, it is still on the same intellectual level and is clearly intended to appeal to the same lumpen instincts.

As in academia, there is a shrinking but defined layer of senior journalists that would rather the NUJ take no position on anything and remain a "politically neutral" professional association, as if living in a bubble world where direct political decisions made by the government (such as todays plans on limiting unfair dismissal claims) have no impact on their working lives.

In the end though, most of those "high profile" members who get annoyed about apparently politically "biased" stances such as Jon Snow and Michael Gove (yes, him) have already resigned from the NUJ.

Whether or not some celebrity member is in the union, whether their NEC member is in the SWP or not, or what position the union is taking over Palestine, makes precisely no difference to the union members on the ground in the regional press or BBC district offices taking industrial action over pay freezes and pensions.

As our society becomes more polarised and trade unions inevitably become more politicised as the "professional association" types vanish into the economic ether, most union members won't care a jot about whether their rep is SWP, SP, CP, CPGB, WRP, Labour, non-aligned, Monster Raving Loony or whatever - provided they do a decent industrial job.

Ms Hunt may live to regret her subtle attacks even if she wins the election. She is putting up artificial and pointless political barriers between herself and activists properly elected to represent members...

JohnG14 said...

' 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.' Not so.

The SWP is strong in UCU because most people don't bother to vote - or take much of a interest in the internal politics of the union.

This election highlights the real problem in the UCU = a lack of active democratic engagement results in a choice between a career bureaucrat -v- a member of a political sect (with definite cult-like traits).

Mark Campbell is right, we need to build for further action around the pensions. Yet, it is impossible to trust the SWP. A history of sectarian self-interest in which the SWP have shown again and again that they cannot work openly and honestly with others can't just be ignored. Sally H is making the most of this of course (well I suspect its the power-behind-her-thrown who;s doing the work). Well factional nastiness goes with the territory - unfortunately. The SWuPpies are past masters at that!

Greg Garrard said...

Hi JohnG14,
I see your point, but it's inconsistent. You say 'UCU Left haven't won support' - but then you say they have, actually, compared to those who would represent the social democrat / liberal / even conservative elements of the UCU.

When I was considering becoming Branch Chair (just as my university started a programme of redundancies) I expressed concern to a colleague that I wasn't left wing enough for the job, being pretty much New Labour through and through. (Sorry.) He said, 'You don't have to be a Trot, you just have to give a s**t.' He was right - but I also learned quickly that it was mostly the 'Trots' who *did* give a s**t, and although I didn't agree with them all the time, I could not have been more grateful for their work and commitment.

So I feel deeply ambivalent about this row. I have no doubt at all that UCU Left hope to use the union for more than 'defending terms and conditions of employment'. But then seeing what an utter pig's ear the govt are making of HE, I'm not sure I disagree with them trying either. But then I really DON'T appreciate the sort of factionalism UCU Left represents (which Hunt is only pointing out, not creating). But then I think if the social democrats and liberals could be *rsed to take part in the union that represents them the NEC would look very different - it might actually include some Tories! They can't, so it doesn't. You get the union representation you deserve, I guess.

But UCU Left should be under no illusions: they can probably take over the NEC, and might win the secretary's position from Hunt, but the majority of union members are well to the right of them and simply will not join in prolonged industrial action.