I’ve quit UCU over its Putin-pleasing Ukraine motion

The University and College Union has empowered a militant minority to push through divisive policies that will alienate its membership, says Julia Bell

June 6, 2023
People looking at damaged residential buildings in Ukraine to illustrate I’ve finally quit the UCU after its hard-left motion on Ukraine war
Source: Getty

Many years ago, when I was working at the University of East Anglia, I came across a Reclaim the Streets protest on Unthank Road. They caused a bit of traffic chaos doing a slow walk into the city, but most memorable was the protester holding a sign reading “Stop Badness”. Well, quite. If only we could. But there is so much badness, everywhere in the world, it’s hard to know where to start.

I joined the University and College Union (UCU) as a means of stopping badness, or at least to give myself a fighting chance. The higher education sector is, to put it mildly, in a state of frayed disarray. Caught between a predatory government, marketisation and overregulation, sometimes it’s hard to know how any teaching happens at all. The pressures are chaotic and confusing, and the UCU fought a good fight over pensions with employers who, year by year, seem to be becoming bad versions of the good leaders we so desperately need. But, like a lot of things post-pandemic, the UCU itself has suddenly been fouled by its own miasma of badness, and the recent motion pushed by the Stop the War Coalition, which passed at congress last week, was, to use a bad metaphor, the final straw that provoked me into cancelling my membership.

It wasn’t so much the infantilised language of the resolution – yes, we can all agree that war mostly affects the poor and disenfranchised – but the dark stink of hard-left ideology that manages to connect Zelensky’s Jewishness to Nato and tries to pretend there is some kind of moral equivalence between Russia and Ukraine. It’s a conference resolution written by Twitter extremists, oiled with intransigence and bad faith, and containing language that revels in its own obtuseness. It’s insulting to friends and colleagues who are experiencing first hand Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression and represents a takeover of congress by fringe elements of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) who, rather than wanting to stop badness, have some bad intentions of their own – namely, to bring about the collapse of capitalism and the suppression of democracy.

In part this is a consequence of the manipulation of the processes of congress. Out of 120,000 UCU members, only around 300 attend congress. Exhausted from the chalkface, only the most hardcore contingent is going to sit through a long bank holiday weekend in a stuffy conference centre. This gives ample room for UCU Left – the entry-level SWP movement, who are well organised and militant – to set and execute the agenda.

As Simone Weil pointed out in her essay On the Abolition of All Political Parties, totalitarianism is the original sin of the political party. Extremists on both sides, she wrote, might be “struck by a sort of mental vertigo on discovering that they were in complete agreement on all issues”.

Essentially, when the right and the left travel to their extremes, they meet each other on the way round. Weil wrote the essay as a letter to de Gaulle to articulate what she saw as the dangerous polarisation of French politics in the 1930s, which allowed for the Nazi occupation. What she describes has a chilling resonance for our similarly polarised politics. “Instead of thinking, one merely takes sides: for or against. Such a choice replaces the activity of the mind,” she wrote.

That this contamination has taken over the UCU is now quite a big problem, especially for an organisation that claims to represent the UK’s intellectual labourers. The union is in danger of becoming a political party of its own, while the leadership seems to spend too much time showboating on social media instead of reining in some of its bad actors.

And the strikes – we’re all frankly fed up with them. That is not to say we shouldn’t strike for issues that matter to the entire sector, but the recent industrial action feels pointless and increasingly driven by the militant minority.

As well as political polarisation, we’re dealing with institutional atomisation. While too many students might be an issue for one university, in another it’s not having enough. The current marking boycott is causing chaos and, in some cases, punitive responses from individual institutions. And the only people who really suffer – apart from the academics who will have to do the marking anyway, sooner or later – are the students. There must be a better, more discursive way forward for individual institutions to have the support they need to deal with the particularities of their specific conditions. What happens at Birkbeck is not happening at Queen Mary, and targeted action – supported by the UCU – would have been helpful in navigating our recent moment of crisis. Across the sector what’s needed is not more picket lines, but more thoughtful engagement and lobbying about what a realistic future might look like for the broken model of higher education in the UK.

That feeling of being politically homeless has been with me for a while; to whom do I turn to represent and protect the classroom? 

On one side I have managers who have drifted ever closer to the right, embedded with their draconian political masters, and on the other the radical left, who want to burn it all down. In between is an increasingly narrow ledge where it’s still possible to do what Weil believed teaching could do best – encourage deep thought and deep listening that develops the mind, that makes it possible to become the kind of citizen who knows how to think critically rather than reactively about the world and who knows how to tell the difference between the good and the badness.

Julia Bell is a reader in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London.

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Reader's comments (16)

Excellent article, thanks.
Couldn't agree more! I left the UCU a few years ago for exactly the same reasons. More should do the same.
This is an excellent article. On the current pay dispute: UCU keeps arguing that the sector is sitting on billion of pounds. However, this is unevenly spread – UCU doesn’t seem to think about what would happen to those Universities who are already struggling if their demands are met (UEA, Kent, Brighton, OU etc). Redundancies would be inevitable, with UCU being the first to protest. The only way to avoid this would be to end national pay bargaining so that those institutions who can pay more are then free to do so. Of course, that would also have some unintended consequences, and again UCU would protest. It seems to me that the UCU leadership are waging a war without an exit strategy, and are likely to lead their members to some serious defeats, having been significantly out of pocket in the process.
You have so succinctly explained the exact reasons why I left earlier this year. My local branch still hasn't noticed.
I have very mixed feelings about this article. Whereas I largely agree with the objection to the conference motion on Ukraine and the role of UCU Left, I don’t see how taking part in the recent strikes and the MAB is of the same ‘militant’ ideology. I have suffered pay cuts for many years now, and, as I see it, my employers owes me tens of thousands of pounds back pay. I wish more members had been as angry about this as me, and as early as me. I was ready to go on strike for better pay 12 years ago. But no - there was no appetite for it then. So please let’s not confuse left with left.
I agree with everything you say, including the embarrassing "showboating" on social media by UCU's leadership. The trouble is leaving UCU hands control over to UCU Left (the "entry-level SWP movement") which is exactly what the SWP wants. Making meetings unbearable is a standard Trotskyist tactic to put off members who do not support their brand of undemocratic, revolutionary socialist, politics; and defeats, in their clueless view, are fine so long as they lead to an increase in SWP membership. But none of that means UCU is a lost cause or that giving up is the way to end the "badness" in HE. You yourself say UCU has "fought a good fight over pensions" and much wonderful work is done quietly in branches - resisting compulsory redundancies, improving employment conditions, and representing individual members who fall foul of managements who have "drifted ever closer to the right". The damage done by the Stop the War Ukraine motion could be mitigated if motions were passed by many branches saying they disassociate themselves from Congress Motion 5 and support Motion 6 on Ukraine. And the influence of the SWP-dominated UCU Left would wane if more members became involved - attending meetings, standing for branch committees, and voting in National Executive Committee elections (where turnouts are rarely above 15%). At the very least, please remain in UCU and vote for non-UCU Left candidates in next year's NEC elections. It's either that or hand over the union to the SWP, Socialist Alternative, Socialist Appeal, and others on the ultra left who have little real interest in trade unions beyond using them to further their own agendas.
The article is confusing. The UCU has not represented its members for as long as I can remember so criticism is well-founded. However, the author does not appear to understand the geopolitical nor historical situation that has led to the conflict in Ukraine and has confounded a range of different issues.
Protesting at wanting to stop a war - how times have changed !
The writer is protesting at the motion that said that arms should no longer be supplied to Ukraine by the west. Not at 'stop the war' but at 'stop supplying Ukraine with weapons'.
That was only the first resolution. The second was for UCU to call for a peaceful resolution to the war and the third to support protests by Stop the War and other anti war organisations.
I agree wholeheartedly with the article. The far left are toxic, especially the SWP. They latch-on to causes and end up alienating the majority. Those defending Motion 5 above are being disengenoius. The far left have distorted and misrepresentated the Ukraine war through their ideological lens with no consultantation or involvement of Ukrainian academics. The far left want to push a narrative that the war has been perputated by NATO and support implicitly the Putin line that this in a 'proxy war'. It's a motion that denies Ukraine to defend itself against Putin's regime, against the multiple war crimes that it has committed. UK academics deserve better representation that this. Perhaps a professional body? I left the UCU two years ago because I saw this far left agenda on the horizon. The Ukraine war has crystallised the huge gap between the far left and the average academic.
The UCU conference position on Ukraine is aligned with that of the far right across Europe and in the USA, but shared by virtually none of its members (witness the unanimous comments on the UCU Left's own website). The UCU's structures for regional and sectional representation have been systematically colonised by the hard left over many years, and now they have ambushed the annual congress. The one big union experiment has failed - university academics need a professional union.
Very good points. The UCU includes a wide range of HE staff, but I agree with your last point.
I left the UCU because of the appalling misogyny, homophobia and authoritarian defence against free speech used to isolate and intimidate gender critical thinkers. This is a further example of the militant few alienating and misrepresenting the wider community.
Excellent article.