No mandate for change

March 22, 2012

In The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (1991), Albert O. Hirschman warns that a typical trope from the camp of reaction is that an action will produce, via a trail of unintended consequences, the contrary of what is being pursued: by pursuing it, you threaten that which you most value.

In the University and College Union, we seem doomed to relive the admonition. Sally Hunt, flush with her re-election as general secretary by a 73 per cent majority in a turnout of 12.5 per cent (or 8.4 per cent of the membership), deems this a mandate to centralise power in her office through a plebiscitary "democracy" ("Support us to help you", 15 March).

So, the UCU turns inwards to consider governance at the time of its greatest test from external threats. The government parks its White Paper on the privatisation of the sector to pursue its programme though ministerial order and without parliamentary scrutiny; the UCU debates its internal structures. The government pursues the abolition of national bargaining for pay and conditions of service; the UCU reflects on how to reallocate 7p per member per month from democratic representation to servicing individual cases. The twin pensions battles continue; the UCU opens a members' survey on restructuring before the Teachers' Pension Scheme survey is completed.

There is a case for revisiting the electoral constituencies and the size of the national executive committee. There is also an established way of doing so: discussion of alternatives on the NEC, branch and regional debate, and decisions taken at the national congress. Democracy is not seeking to take decisions in principle by e-plebiscite without consideration of their implications. Members are not "empowered" by buying a pig in a poke.

Nor is empowerment to be found in the direct election of national negotiators. How would such negotiators be held accountable? How could they be recalled and replaced if they failed to carry out union policy? Office without accountability is the bureaucratic equivalent of power without responsibility. If they do not elect the negotiators who seek to deliver policy, why would conferences continue to have the power to make that policy? The suggestion that this is "turning towards the members" is an imposture.

Most bizarre of all is the proposal to put all final offers to a members' ballot. When is a final offer "final"? In the TPS dispute, there have been four offers that the government described as "final". Had the general secretary had her way, we would have balloted on an earlier one and would not have benefited from subsequent concessions. Write this into our rules and we will be balloting at the whim of our enemies.

Having lost the policy argument on a series of issues, the general secretary is now determined on structural change from the top. My friend Sally seems poised to rename herself "Sally Bonaparte".

Tom Hickey, UCU national executive committee

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