The Real Democratic Deficit in UCU

Adam Ozanne

This post – from NEC member and recent Congress delegate Adam Ozanne, gives a point of view, on how in Adam’s words “UCU in three days moved from being the most successful trade union in the UK – one that other UK trade unions look upon as leading the way in fighting back against the deliberate constraints placed on them by the Tory government’s 2017 anti-Trade Union Bill – to one whose Congress degenerated into chaos after its paid regional and national officials, who are members of Unite, walked out three times and declared a trade dispute with UCU as their employer, causing Congress to be suspended twice and then brought to a premature end with only a fraction of its business completed”.

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Congress should have been a positive and reinforcing event celebrating the successes of the past year, the union’s reinvigoration and renewed strength. So how was it that UCU trade unionists have found themselves in dispute with fellow trade unionists in their employ? Why did Congress 2018 degenerate into chaos? How can victory have been turned so nearly into defeat? And what role did UCULeft, a faction dominated by the Trotskyist Socialist Worker Party (SWP), and supporters of the Independent Broad Left (IBL) grouping play?

The post is set out in seven sections:

  1. The three contentious motions
  2. What happened at Congress – How Victory can be Turned into Defeat
  3. Analysis of the dispute
  4. A reminder of how the USS strikes came to an end
  5. The UCULeft faction and IBL network
  6. The real “democratic deficit” in UCU
  7. What is to be done?

  1. The three contentious motions

Motion B19:  Democracy Review (from Sheffield and Bath branches)

This late motion had not been put on the agenda because the Congress Business Committee (CBC) received legal advice indicating it was not “competent business” for either Congress or the FE and HE sector conferences. Presumably this was because, as well as calling for a Democracy Commission and Special Congress to review the union’s democratic structures, it called for a review of the number of full-time officials who are appointed rather than elected. Since at present only one employee, the General Secretary, is elected, this effectively put the jobs of other UCU staff at risk. The moving Sheffield and Baths branches had given notice that it wished to challenge CBC and ask Congress to put Motion B19 back on the agenda, a request put by CBC in its first report to Congress.

Motion 10:  No confidence in UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt (from Exeter branch)

Motion 11:  Censure of UCU General Secretary (from King’s College London branch)

These motions criticised the conduct of the General Secretary (GS) claiming in particular that she was:

  • wrong to refuse a vote at the USS branches meeting on March 28th;
  • wrong to claim when writing to members during the subsequent e-ballot that a majority of the branches at that meeting wanted to put the UUK offer to a vote of all members;
  • which meant, according to Motion 10, there is a “democratic deficit” in the union; and that
  • Congress should therefore “call for the resignation of Sally Hunt with immediate effect”.

NEC was informed at meetings on the 28thand 29ththat the staff Unite branch had pointed out a number of problems with Motions 10 and 11 and that the legitimacy of these concerns had been confirmed in legal advice received by the union’s senior elected officers. In particular, the motions:

  • included proposals which went outside the remit of Congress because they related to the employment of the GS who, as well as being elected by members, is formally employed by NEC;
  • by-passed and pre-empted agreed procedures set out in the GS’s employment contract for dealing with complaints against her;
  • contained unsubstantiated allegations presented as fact before they had been investigated or considered though any of UCU’s agreed procedures, in breach of due process and contrary to the rules of natural justice;
  • raised matters which, in addition to being factually incorrect and/or unsubstantiated, could not be fairly dealt with by due process once 300-odd delegates had aired them at Congress;
  • if passed, would mean the union faced additional financial and reputational risks.

After discussions with Unite and votes on the 28thand 29th, NEC decided to pass these concerns on to Congress in two statements requesting the motions be withdrawn.

  1. What happened at Congress – How Victory can be Turned into Defeat

Motion B19 caused the first suspension of Congress business when Congress voted to put it back on the agenda and the UCU staff walked out to hold an emergency Unite branch meeting.

Since business could not continue without staff recording votes, acting as tellers etc., the President suspended Congress for thirty minutes, and then another thirty, while discussions took place between the Unite branch, representatives of NEC (which formally is their employer), and the movers of the motion. As a result of these discussions, the problem was remedied by the Sheffield and Bath delegates who helpfully agreed to delete the contentious parts of the motion.

Congress resumed. When it came to Motions 10 and 11, NEC’s made its first statement and request that, because they undermined the right of the GS to due process as set out in her employment contract, they be withdrawn and any complaints be pursued in the appropriate manner as set out in the unions rules and the GS’s contract. After debating this requested, Congress voted against withdrawal of the motions, causing the second walkout by the Unite branch and another suspension of Congress business.

Further discussions then took place between representatives of the NEC, the Unite branch and the movers of the two motions in an attempt to reach a compromise that would enable Congress to continue. As in the case of Motion B19, Unite requested that the movers remove from their motions factually incorrect and/or unsubstantiated allegations and phrases that went into inappropriate employment matters while leaving untouched the parts that would still allow Congress to address the main purpose of the motions, i.e. criticism of how the USS dispute and ballot had been managed. However, unlike the Sheffield and Bath branches, the delegates from the Exeter and Kings College UL branches were not willing to remove any part of the wording of their motions, which led to the first day of business being closed earlier than planned.

The Further Education and Higher Education Sector Conferences took place the following day without any disruption, (in the case of HE, debating and passing over 40 motions); delegates attended the Conference dinner on Thursday evening, and Congress resumed business on Friday morning.

During Thursday there were further talks between Unite and representatives of NEC. These resulted in a joint statement being discussed in another NEC meeting and, after being voted through by a substantial majority, being shared with delegates on Friday morning. This joint statement set out in greater detail why, without denying UCU members the right of lodging any complaint against the GS or any other employee of the union, the Unite branch believed Motions 10 and 11 flouted due process as set out in the GS’s employment contract. It also explained why, for natural justice to prevail, it was important that the truth of any allegations should first be investigated, with evidence presented and the GS given an opportunity to defend herself, instead of allowing factually incorrect and/or unsubstantiated allegations to be presented as fact in motions to Congress. The statement ended by asking Congress to reconsider its decision not to withdraw Motions 10 and 11.

It is also worthwhile noting that when delegates returned for Congress, CBC recommended that it resume with the business scheduled on the agenda for Friday morning and only return to Wednesday’s business, including the two contentious motions, if there was time at the end of the day. This, in other words, offered Congress a second compromise by which further disruption and confrontation with the Unite branch might be avoided, at least until after some Congress business had been completed.

Instead, in a move that many regarded as being unnecessarily provocative to the Unite branch, UCULeft members moved that standing orders be suspended and Congress deal first with unfinished business fro Wednesday afternoon. This was voted on and passed and Congress returned to Wednesday’s agenda, including motions 10 and 11.

Before they were addressed, however, CBC’s fifth report, tabled at the start of business on Friday morning, introduced three new, emergency motions all of which were passed. The first of these denied that NEC acts as the GS’s employer (which rather begs the question who is her employer) and expressed Congress’s belief that it has the right to subject all elected officers, including the GS, to criticism. The second repeated calls made elsewhere for the setting up of a Democracy Commission to consider the union’s democratic structures and for a Special Congress to consider its recommendations. The third called for another Special Congress to be called a soon as possible to complete the business that fell at this Congress. Thus, including two special Higher Education Sector Conference in July and September to consider USS, UCU is now committed to four extra, major meetings over the next six months at an estimated cost of around £300,000 having depleted its coffers during the USS dispute and passing a breakeven budget for 2018-19.

At this point Congress returned to Motions 10 and 11 and the President tabled the joint statement. After further speeches for and against, the request that the motions be withdrawn was again rejected, with the result that staff walked out for a third and final time and Congress, with no prospect of a compromise being reached, shortly afterwards was brought to an early end having dealt with 9 of the 48 motions on the agenda.

Each time Congress was suspended many delegates also walked out while UCULeft, with the SWP in the forefront, attempted to keep Congress business going, calling for volunteers to chair the meeting, take minutes, act as vote tellers etc. This struck many who had walked out, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the Unite position, as being disrespectful of the rights of fellow trade union members; it was pointed out that that there is a name for those who volunteer to do the work of workers who even temporarily withdraw their labour.

Worryingly, there was also a good deal of what can only be called highly inappropriate behaviour. The suspension was quickly broadcast via social media, with one Tweet stating that UCU’s paid staff had “flounced” out – a curious description by a trade unionist of fellow trade unionists’ actions – while others less intemperately accused staff of using a “bureaucratic” manoeuvre to subvert democracy in the union. After the final walkout, staff operating the turned-off sound system were harangued and accused of Health and Safety breaches (nonsense since, as conference centre staff pointed out, emergency warnings would be made by the permanent public address system in the building), which led to one person being escorted away in tears. Similar language has continued on Twitter and the UCU Activists list, some of it little short of disgraceful.

  1. Analysis of the dispute

It is clear from the above that the nub of the dispute at Congress lay mainly in the unusual position of the General Secretary as both employee and elected leader:  in the latter capacity, she is accountable to members; in the former, her conduct is subject to disciplinary processes set out in her employment contract.  The clash arose initially between delegates with genuine concerns about union democracy and a desire to hold an elected official accountable, and paid staff and other delegates who felt natural justice demanded that due process be followed before any no confidence or censure motions were openly debated and voted upon.

However, the explanation also lies partly in the way the situation was exploited by ultra-left members in UCULeft, a faction dominated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), in an effort to oust Sally Hunt and take control of the union: in other words, it was a failed coup attempt – a destructive attempt to divide and gain control of the union.

Before addressing this and trying to identify a way out for the union, it’s helpful first to recall how the USS strikes came to an end since this is important in understanding the allegations made against the GS and the claims that there is a democratic deficit in UCU.

  1. A reminder of how the USS strikes came to an end

Motions 10 and 11 largely concerned the USS dispute and, if Congress had debated them, the claims of misconduct in them, summarised in section 1 above, would undoubtedly have been contested by members who attended the branches and HEC meetings on March 28th.

The first of these allegations, that the GS prevented a vote at the branches meeting in line with UCU’s rules, was both false and unfair because:

  • the GS was not in the Chair and played no role in calling or not calling for a vote so such criticism of her is unfair and, if anything, should be directed at others;
  • it was an advisory, information gathering not decision-making meeting so a vote was not necessary;
  • if, nevertheless, there had been a vote it could never have been anything more than a straw poll as the sizes of the branches represented varied from round 50 to 2500, each with one vote.

The second main allegation was that the GS misled members during the USS e-ballot by incorrectly reporting the branches meeting and HEC meeting on March 28thin which the majority of HEC members, having heard the branches meeting, voted to ballot all pre-1992 members. This reflects the claim made afterwards on the UCULeft website that an overwhelming majority of branches were against balloting members on the UUK offer and setting up a Joint Expert Panel to investigate USS’s valuation methodology.

Even given disagreements about the interpretation of what particular branches intended and the weighting that should be attached to contradictory e-ballots and meetings  the claim on the UCULeft website that, “Overwhelmingly branches believe the current offer is insufficient to put out to ballot of members‎” and similar claims made elsewhere were factually incorrect, misleading and unhelpful to members wanting an accurate record of what happened on March 28th.

Two further points are important. Firstly, as the branches meeting was advisory and (because of the vast variation in branch sizes from 50 to 2500) unrepresentative, even if a straw poll had showed a narrow majority for rejection (as opposed to the very clear majority on March 13th) it would still have been legitimate for HEC to decide that, on balance, it could not reject such an offer without putting it to all pre-1992 members.

Secondly, it should be recalled that there were many requests, at the branches meeting on March 28 and subsequently in local discussions round the country and by emails direct to the GS, for more information about what employers, UUK, USS and the Pensions Regulator would do. It was the responsibility of the GS to respond to those requests and she did so, spelling out the implications of accepting or rejecting UUK’s offer. Some members clearly disagreed with that advice – usually because she did not recommend outright rejection – but that is not grounds for charging the GS with misconduct. Having argued before and in the March 28thmeetings that a ballot was inappropriate because members had too little information to make an informed judgement, it is disingenuous, to say the least, for UCULeft members to criticise the GS for providing more information.

Regardless of whether one accepts the above defence of the GS, what is indisputable is that despite UCULeft’s vigorous campaign to persuade members to reject the UUK offer and resume the strikes after the Easter holidays, 64% of members voted to accept the UUK offer on a turnout of 64%, the highest turnout in the union’s history. UCU members are, by definition, highly educated, well informed and can think for themselves, and the e-ballot result was a vindication of the HEC decision – on a vote of 10 for and 8 against (all UCULeft by their own account) with one abstention – to allow members to decide.

  1. The UCULeft faction and IBL network

Some members of UCULeft are clearly angry that they lost the argument and the vote, but that does not justify their attempts to mislead UCU members about the March 28thmeeting and discredit the vote; nor does it justify their attack on the GS (who comprehensively defeated their candidate in last year’s election) on the basis of flimsy allegations of misconduct and holding her “accountable”. Moreover, the USS ballot result proves the falseness of the myth they seek to perpetuate, and which was repeated at Congress, that pre-1992 members were keen to continue striking into the exam period after Easter and that the union leadership “stole victory” from them.

The reluctance of UCULeft to accept these defeats gracefully also demonstrates the hollowness of their claims to being for a “democratic and member-led union”, as does their past opposition to the introduction of the consultative e-ballots and Get The Vote Out campaigns that have been so successful in nullifying the 50% turnout requirement of the government’s anti-trade union legislation and building grassroots member support for industrial action.

When charged with being a faction, UCULeft members respond by claiming that there is another “conservative”, “right wing”, “powerful” faction in the union, the Independent Broad Left Network (IBL), the implication being that both are in some way equally responsible for divisions within the union. Since ordinary members are understandably put off by sectarianism, it is worthwhile pointing out the differences between UCULeft and IBL, which can be summarised as follows:


  • controlled NEC from the time of the AUT/NATFE merger until about four years ago;
  • has a separate national membership list, which means it can inform its members how to vote in elections etc., and quickly instigate social media campaigns – for example, in the 24 hours before the meetings about USS on March 13 and 28 HEC members received a barrage of 400-500 Twitter messages;
  • has separate membership subscriptions of up to £30 per year;
  • is dominated by the Socialist Workers Party and other ultra-left group (sometimes allies, sometimes enemies) like the Socialist Party (formerly Militant Tendency, famous for “entryism” into the Labour Party in the 1980s – see Michael Crick’s book, “The March of Militant”, 1986), Socialist Equality Party (one of many splinter groups from the Workers Revolutionary Party) who also claim to represent the “Rank and File”, and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW);
  • the SWP is a Trotskyist party believing in democratic centralism (i.e. a central leadership deciding how members will vote), impossibilism (i.e. raising people’s expectations so that, when they are dashed, they become politically radicalised), vanguardism (the leadership of the proletariat by a revolutionary elite) and permanent, international revolution;
  • SWP membership declined dramatically after sexual assault and rape allegations involving a leading member, “Comrade Delta”, were denied by the party’s leadership in 2013-14; it has little influence in unions anymore, apart from UCU and the NUT;
  • the SWP national organiser attended Congress and regularly meets with SWP members before meetings at Leyas cafe across the road from UCU’s London headquarters.

Independent Broad Left Network:

  • was set up around five years ago by NEC members who were fed up with the domination of ultra-left UCULeft members who, it was felt rightly or wrongly, did not reflect the priorities of members and were leading the union into poorly supported industrial actions;
  • outside of the previous and current NEC and one or two regions, where like-minded UCU members have set up separate mailing lists, has no national membership list;
  • has no separate membership subs;
  • discusses before votes which candidates may stand the best hope of winning but does not “whip”, there is no block voting at Congress or on UCU committees – members listen to debates and vote accordingly, often in different ways;
  • includes members and former members of the Labour Party, SNP, Liberal Democrats, Communist Party and no party at all, often with differing views and opinions – the key is “independent”.

Contrary to UCULeft claims that there are two factions in the union, it is fairer to say that whereas UCULeft is indeed a faction, i.e. an organisation within an organisation with its own subs etc., IBL is a loose network or, at most, an “anti-faction faction” that would disband quickly if UCULeft did not exist.

  1. The real “democratic deficit” in UCU

It was pointed out in section 1 that one of the claims made in the no confidence motion, Motion 1, and indeed elsewhere, was that there is a “democratic deficit” in UCU because Sally Hunt misled members when she wrote to them about the USS ballot. There is a democratic deficit, but that is not it.

John Kelly, Professor of Industrial Relations and President of the UCU branch at Birkbeck, has pointed out in an analysis of what happened at Congress 2018 on the Critical Labour Studies list that UCU, like other trade unions, consists of three main groups of people, all of whom have rights: paid staff, all of whom are appointed apart from the GS who is elected; activists who take the lead in organising branches, strikes and picket lines, and attend Congress; and the wider membership whose involvement is more sporadic and varied.

UCULeft claims to be for a “democratic and member-led union” but its dominant SWP group, being a Totskyist vanguardist party, and their ultra-left allies are actually for democratic centralismand an activist-ledunion. This explains their opposition to balloting members on USS and previously to the introduction of consultative e-ballots, GTVO, electronic voting that limits opportunities for bullying and intimidation, and other means by which the wider membership has the ultimate say.

Congress is, almost be definition, attended by activists, but this means it is not necessarily representative of the wider UCU membership and can be dominated by small well-organised groups like the SWP. And since UCULeft is the only faction with its own UK-wide member list and separate annual subscriptions (up to £30 per year), new activists looking for a home that sounds ‘left’ naturally gravitate to it. This is the real democratic deficit in UCU.

The above will no doubt be vociferously denied by the many thoroughly decent supporters of UCULeft who are not ultra-left. However, it is disingenuous to deny and naïve not to recognise the leading role played in UCULeft by the SWP and ultra-left allies with their own political agendas.

  1. What is to be done?

Calling for the General Secretary to resign during the middle of the on-going USS dispute – one of the biggest and most important in the union’s history – was not only divisive and destructive. It was tactically naïve: how naïve can be understood in a moment simply by considering whom it will have most pleased – employers, UUK and the USS executive.

Mistakes may have been made during the USS dispute and at Congress, by the GS, the Unite branch, NEC members and Congress delegates: nobody is perfect and everyone makes mistakes, especially in the intensely fraught conditions of a vitally important industrial dispute. However, what we need now is not more recrimination, misinformation and repeated, inaccurate, unsubstantiated allegations of stolen victories and betrayal by the union’s leadership. That is how victory is turned into defeat.

The challenge now is, first, for non ultra-left UCU members to unite and reclaim Congress, so that it is more representative of the wider membership, thus rectifying the real democratic deficit in the union and ensuring there is no repetition of what happened this year.

This requires recognition of the differences between the functions and purposes of a trade union and those of a political party, especially parties of the ultra-left like the SWP, Socialist Party, Socialist Equality Party, RS21 etc. Because, unlike the latter, trade unions are not revolutionary socialist parties but mainly defensive organisations for protecting and enhancing the working conditions of their  members through collective action. They should not be treated as vehicles for promoting the ideologies of ultra-left groups of varying degrees of smallness who see industrial action as an end it itself.

Second, we need to clarify and rethink the roles and rights of the GS and other paid officials, activists and the wider membership. This may mean changing the unions’ rules so that, when anyone is dissatisfied, their concerns can be heard while protecting the rights of employees to due process. This should be the priority of the Democratic Commission agreed at Congress (although why another £120,000 Congress in the Autumn is needed instead of the Commission reporting to the next annual Congress, as last year’s Commission on Industrial Action did, is moot).

Third, the focus of attention needs to be on capitalising on the successes of the last twelve months, harnessing the energy of the thousands of new members who have joined and actively participated in the USS and other campaigns so we can build and reinvigorate our branches, which are the true strength of the union and where our real work takes place.

Finally, we need to work together. To succeed, UCU needs joined-up campaigning with members, activists, elected officers and full-time officials all pulling in the same direction, as we have been doing so successfully (at least until Congress) in the USS, Hull, Coventry, Manchester and many other disputes over the past year.

This, or something like it, is what we need now if we are to build on the union’s successes of the past year and continue defending pensions, pay, jobs and the rights of trade unionists (including those in our employment).


Article amended 20th Sept 2018