'Political' issues, not old affiliations, will decide result

January 12, 2007

Candidates for posts in the super-union say former allegiances will count for less than more recent debates, Tony Tysome writes.

Members voting in the forthcoming elections to fill positions in the University and College Union are likely to make their choices on "political" grounds rather than on "tribal" former union allegiances, candidates predicted this week.

Although former members of the lecturers' union Natfhe dominate the list of 168 nominees, even candidates from post-92 institutions forecast that tribal allegiances to former unions will not feature strongly in voting patterns when members return their ballot papers by the March 8 deadline.

Instead, political divisions within the UCU over key issues such as the handling of last year's pay dispute, which cross former union lines, will have a significant influence on polling decisions, the candidates believe.

Members will vote on nominees for 70 positions, 34 of them specifically for higher education.

Apart from overarching posts such as those of general secretary and president, the positions are divided between higher and further education and by geographical region. Specialist posts include "equality" seats to represent black, disabled, gay and lesbian, and female members.

Because these are the first elections for the new union and they feature an electoral system that some have called "fiendishly complex" (see box), most candidates agree that the voting is wide open and the outcome impossible to call.

Liz Lawrence is standing to represent both higher education in the North East and female members. She is also seeking a place on the union's national executive committee for higher education.

"Clearly there are a lot of people from both former unions who are standing, and no one has any idea how the votes will fall. It was clear from a conference held before Christmas that we have moved on from tribalism and division along former union lines," she said. "Candidates are standing on their records rather than their membership of former unions.

The different experiences of academics in different parts of the sector may have an impact on their political stance, but it is impossible to predict the outcome."

Tom Hickey, who is standing for the post of president and for a place on the NEC representing higher education, said "political" differences were now more important than former unions. "This has been demonstrated by the fact that twice in recent NEC meetings voting has gone across former union lines," he said.

One new political force is UCU Left, which is backing 24 candidates. One of its founders Sue Blackwell, who is standing for a place on the NEC, said:

"I think the Left is getting organised, and we are going to try to build a union that does not sell its members out over pay and conditions. We want a union that is accountable to its members."

Neil Williamson, who is standing for vice-president higher education, representative for higher education in the Midlands, and a place on the NEC, said: "I hope the electorate will not just look at whatever labels people attach to themselves or have attached to them, but rather at their track records and what they stand for."



Union members could find themselves scratching their heads over more than just which candidates they prefer.

Candidates for University and College Union posts fear that a complex electoral system may confuse and even deter voters.

Ballot papers will go out to the UCU's 118,000 members on February 7. Under the single transferable vote system, members will be asked to list candidates in order of preference. The process is complicated by a need to meet quotas to ensure that the union's executive reflects its membership.

There are 170 candidates vying for 70 positions, many of which are divided between higher and further education and geographical region.

A UCU spokesman said candidates can stand for more than one position, but once a candidate is declared elected to any position, votes for him or her will be disregarded in subsequent elections. "If members express a preference for someone whose candidacy does not continue to the ballot count (because they win an earlier ballot), their next preference will be counted," he said.

Bill Gulam, who is standing for three posts - as a representative for black members, higher education representative in the North West and for a place on the NEC - said: "Hopefully after these elections, we will switch to a saner system."


Peter Jones, one of three UCU general secretary candidates, returned to work this week only to discover that he and his partner, who is also a UCU activist, had been made redundant.

Mr Jones, an hourly paid lecturer at Deeside College, Wales, returned to work from his Christmas vacation on Tuesday to find that his course and his job had been axed.

The blow came just days after his partner, business management and personal development lecturer Bernice Waugh, was informed by the Welsh College of Horticulture that she had been chosen for redundancy.

The news followed the collapse of merger talks between the two colleges.

The UCU condemned the end of merger talks as a missed opportunity to save jobs.

Mr Jones, who has been teaching on Deeside's TUC access course in employment law for a year, said he had been given no notice of the college's decision to stop the course and end his contract.

He said: "I think they have dealt with this in a very unprofessional way. I am going to have to seek a meeting with management to determine my situation.

"There is no doubt in my mind that our losing our jobs has something to do with us both being prominent UCU members."

Asked how he felt the setback would affect his chances of being elected UCU general secretary, he said: "I do not know whether it will help or hinder me.

"But I am sure that it will generate a great deal of interest among lecturers who may be facing similar circumstances."

In a statement, the college claims Mr Jones was aware that his contract would end, adding that "at present, we have yet to contract with him for any additional work".

Ms Waugh, a UCU branch secretary, said she was the latest of seven lecturers to be made redundant at her college.

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