By Mark Osborn, the delegate who moved the left anti-boycott motion at UCU conference
THE new University and College Union (UCU), formed from the merger of AUT and NATFHE, met in conference for the first time at the end of May.
The media covered the conference extensively – mainly because of an SWP motion, submitted through Brighton University by one of their people, Tom Hickey, which called for a discussion about a boycott of Israeli academia.
The motion passed despite the formal disapproval of both leading factions inside the bureaucracy (Sally Hunt, new leader of UCU comes from the AUT’s side, and Roger Kline and Paul Mackney, who come from the NATFHE wing); and despite a huge row in the AUT which led to a special conference voting 80:20 against a boycott.
Mackney did nothing obvious to prevent the motion going though; Hunt said she opposed the boycott in a couple of speeches. They were hardly fighting hard for their position.
The agreed text is pro-boycott; but it commits the union to a year of debate on the question. So there is time to campaign.
The first point to make is that the conference was small. The SWP’s boycott motion was passed 158 to 99 with 17 abstentions. No-one from UCU was willing to say how those figures break down, or how many delegates were entitled to attend. Unofficially the attendance figure for Further Education branches was 83, and from Higher Education branches 188. So, given there are over 300 FE colleges, and so over 300 FE UCU branches, only around 25% of FE branches sent delegates.
Second, the SWP had a very big voting block. Around 10% of all delegates seemed to be SWP members; they also had a largish, broader group in their orbit organised through their front, “UCU Left”.
In fact these two points are simply aspects of the same problem: they are indicators of a low level of membership-involvement inside the union.
So, one way the pro-boycott people could be defeated is simply by getting more ordinary members to conference — but for that to happen the membership would have to see the point of paying attention and turning up. And there’s the rub: Sally Hunt and co. are not likely to lead fights that stimulate grass roots activity.
The political problem for anti-boycott left-wingers has several aspects. First, the SWP are dishonest debaters. They had six or eight speakers in the boycott discussion. None said what they actually think about Israel. Some didn't even really push the boycott, simply stating that the Palestinians are very badly treated; and that we need a debate on the issue of the boycott – which is, formally, all the Brighton motion proposed.
In fact there is a bloc of people supporting the boycott. At UCU conference the core grouping was SWP plus fellow travellers that want to see Israel destroyed. Beyond them there is a wide grouping of people who (mainly) are for two states but just want to “do something” to help the Palestinians. And beyond that group was a layer that thought, “yes, let’s have a debate – that’s what academics do.”
So, to deal with this problem two things need to happen: the union needs to take up some positive pro-Palestinian solidarity (which would allow activists to say that we don’t need a negative, harmful boycott as the union has plenty of positive initiatives on offer); we need to clearly draw the political lines by pushing Two States as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But the problem, on the one hand, is that Sally Hunt’s UCU seems unlikely to do significant pro-Palestinian work. On the other hand the SWP are very reluctant to say what they think, even when they find themselves in a corner.
A good measure of the political problem at UCU conference was, in fact, the debate after the boycott session (smaller, as some people had left). My branch had a motion that advocated solidarity with Iraq’s new unions.
The SWP wanted to remove one clause that denounced the so-called resistance militias as anti-woman and anti-working class.
Although they were dishonest, and failed to say, “victory to the resistanceæ, I still thought we would win. It had been possible to vote for a boycott of Israel and think you were just helping the Palestinians (rather than helping the SWP give the Jews a kicking). But delegates could not vote with them on this issue, and not also understand they were explicitly backing the fascist Iraqi resistance.
Nevertheless they won!
Unbelievable. So probably half the delegates in total were politically-deranged enough to (in a backhanded way) back the Islamists in Iraq! So it’s not a surprise we lost on the boycott.
Finally, in the anti-boycott camp there is still another problem. The left-wing voice needs sharply defining. Various arguments are used that do not have any grip, or are just plain wrong:
• The majority of people who voted for my branch’s left-wing, pro-Palestinian anti-boycott amendment were, in fact, on the right of conference, and favoured “academic freedom” in an abstract, don't-muck-around-with-my-research, way.
• Predictably, the arguments from Trade Union Friends of Israel’s are: academics need to talk to each other; Israel's really democratic and very nice to Palestinian students. But they just make themselves an easy target for the SWP who (reasonably) denounced them at a fringe meeting as “not showing a shred of sympathy for the Palestinians”.
• Or Sally Hunt’s argument: The union shouldn't really get involved in politics, but concentrate on the basic things like jobs and wages.
But this has no purchase with a delegate who — rightly — says: I want my union to make solidarity with these poor Palestinians (and, by the way, you’re not very good at fighting on jobs and wages, either).
Somehow I can not imagine Sally Hunt fighting the battle of ideas against the SWP, slugging it out, campus by campus. I can, however, imagine her attempting to use some bureaucratic trick to cheat a pro-boycott UCU conference majority in a year’s time (after having done nothing much to tackle the politics of the matter over the next year).
Of course that would create an even worse mess.
So, a lot is down to us and what we do now.