I have sat through dozens of speeches by union general secretaries, but I had never seen anything like this. Halfway through her speech at the University and College Union’s annual congress in Manchester last summer, Sally Hunt, the union’s general secretary, launched into a positively surreal tirade against a leaflet - presumably authored by the UCU Left - that no one had seen but which apparently opposed her contentious proposal to reduce the size of the union’s national executive committee.
Shouts of “Source! Source!” rang across the hall, but that did not deter Hunt from proceeding to counter each of the document’s “extraordinary claims” with equally unsubstantiated assertions of her own. This provoked widespread derision from delegates, who proceeded to vote down her proposal.
Perhaps her performance was just a moment of madness, but to me it was illustrative of the lack of leadership currently afflicting the UCU. The general secretary’s reports to its premier committee, the strategy and finance committee, have descended into a bland list of events and activities, rather than setting out a vision. Hence, the ensuing debate invariably lacks focus and direction. Unable to argue a case, the leadership - by which I mean all of the elected officers - plays the man not the ball.
Leadership is not conferred upon a person by virtue of her or his position. It has to be earned - and that requires it to be inclusive. The idea isn’t to get everyone to play in the same position, but - to use another football analogy - to make sure everyone is kicking towards the same goal. The notion that you can dispense with a whole section of the team and still expect to win is bonkers. Yet this is precisely what the leadership of the UCU is endeavouring to do in attempting to rid itself of its Left.
No doubt some activists and branch officers, without whose hard work the union would collapse, would like to put the UCU into a permanent state of industrial action - in a mini version of Trotsky’s permanent revolution - and join any strike going, with little regard to the effect on or the preparedness of members. But instead of channelling such enthusiasm and energy into a plan of action to protect jobs, pensions, pay and conditions, the leadership chooses to demonise those involved as the enemy within, lumping them all together as members of the Socialist Workers Party (giving the latter an undeserved credibility).
Then there is the state of the UCU’s finances. It suits both sides to deny that there is a problem. The leadership is afraid of being held to account for poor financial management, while the strike-at-any-cost brigade do not want fears about a lack of cash to be used to justify restricting campaigning. It was not surprising, then, that subscriptions were increased at the congress by 6 per cent at a time when membership is falling (by 4,000 in the past year) and members’ pay is frozen.
When the UCU was formed in 2006 from the merger of two predecessor organisations - the Association of University Teachers and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education - it had secure finances, two large London premises in Britannia Street and Tavistock Place, and healthy reserves. But the purchase in 2008 of its current London headquarters in Camden was hastily signed off when property prices were falling. This left the union with two buildings to sell in a collapsing market and a global economic crisis.
The property in Tavistock Place was sold relatively quickly, but the larger one in Britannia Street was much more difficult to shift, culminating in the news earlier this year that it was to be sold for substantially less than envisaged. All this, in my estimation, adds up to a loss of several million pounds for the union.
It is imperative that the general secretary reaches out to the activists and enlists their help in pulling the UCU out of this toxic mix of political turmoil and financial meltdown before it is too late. Time is short: one year at the most. But I still live in hope.