DDU is delighted that Paul Embery has won his case against the Fire Brigade Union for unfair dismissal because of his pro-Brexit speech at a Leave Means Leave rally in March 2019. It is a sign of the times that the FBU leadership should recast a member’s political views, and his freedom of speech to voice them, as “gross misconduct”. That it took an employment tribunal to ensure justice prevailed rather than spontaneous solidarity from fellow union members is also a telling indictment of a broader problem in today’s unions. Former District Secretary of the National Education Union, Patrick Stevens*, considers how anti-democratic, partisan trends have grown within his own union. Read more below:
In a recent speech addressed to Stand Up to Racism (SUTR, a front for the Socialist Workers’ Party), Kevin Courtney made several unthinking, reductive assumptions. For example, Courtney asserted without evidence:
- That greater numbers of dead ethnic doctors, killed by Covid equals racism
- The deaths at Grenfell were also due to racism,
- The Windrush scandal where small numbers of the “Windrish Generation” were deported was racism.
- The Sewell Report was racist and has racist intentions, or as KC puts it “to divide black and white workers”. By saying both class and race matter, Courtney, like several other hyperbolic critics, claims the report has denied racism.
- His final shot is to tell his partisan audience to disown the report that he has hardly bothered to read
So, why were SUTR treated to this evidence free and partisan speech? Why does Courtney feel so confident to imply that teachers in his union are racists and treat black children in a discriminatory way? He knows that teachers are part of the institution that he claims is racist, presumably along with the police and employers. However, if you are going to call racism, the grounds have to be sound, which means racism entails either individual acts, or institutions, where you can cite a racist operation in terms of policy.
Alternatively, you can refer to systematic racism, which Courtney takes as a given and on which he bases his speech. Systematic racism seems to operate all around us, and it is assumed to be evident is the mere existence statistical gaps or disparities. The racism that is tasked with explaining everything, is, in reality, based on bad thinking which would have us believe that every disparity can only be completely due to racism. So, Kevin runs with this as the underlying assumption in his speech, knowing that his audience also think like this.
However, it needs to be explained why the joint leader of the NEU, which has a huge membership, feels compelled to make this speech to SUTR, a (small) group which includes a small number of NEU members and to which the NEU donates. There seem to be several contributing reasons:
- Lack of activity of the union membership
- The over representation of the left in the active membership and union hierarchies
- Six Anti-Trade Union Acts of Parliamentpassed between 1980-1993 which have restricted the scope for industrial action and the growth of Academy schools which some argue have led to worsening pay and conditions for teachers
- A focus on issues of great interest to media and cultural elites, and away from pay and conditions which have been traditional concerns of unions.
- The growth of identity politics
Kevin Courtney was voted into his position by around 7% of the membership on 15 June 2016. This is average in terms of members’ voting turnout and is members that can be bothered to vote and put an envelope into a post box with a free post address on it. This is standard for all Executive positions. Local General Meetings usually have less than 25 members attending out of a district membership that may number between 2,000 members to 4,000 members. This leads to the union being run at a local and national level by a few activists.
The left is extremely active in a union that has few activists overall. The NEU formed from the NUT and ATL until in 2017 and has a membership of 510,000. Courtney knows who will vote for him and who he has to please. Many Executive members out of the elected 64 Executives are in political parties. I would estimate that partisan groups as the Socialist Workers’ Party and Socialist Party and Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star) account for about 10%-15% Other groups, who are more broadly left in outlook, but not party members) form a similar proportion, and then Labour Party members and Labour leaning members make up most of the rest.
The left also organises into informal power groups including the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union, Socialist Teachers Alliance, NEU Left, Broad Left, and the Education Solidarity Network, within the NEU . The problem is that they promote their own agendas and ambitions in the union and decide (because of generally low activity) on policy and who they support. They have a lot of influence on the priorities of the union, which are all decided at Annual Conference, which is itself attended by many activists from the cults and groups. The activists write the motions, which are voted for by small local District Meetings and this sets the agenda for Conference and the Union for the coming year. The majority of members know nothing of this and are members because it is “an insurance policy”. They have no idea of the “bottom up” structure of the union, which leads the activists a clear run.
Anti-Trade Union Laws and the growth of Academy schools has meant worse conditions for members and less ability to win strikes over pay and conditions. Some may see this an improvement for students, but I would say this is not an overall improvement for the education system. I think many may disagree here but there are certainly some negative consequences. Since the 2016 Act we have seen a larger turnover of teachers – a less stable workforce and many older teachers leaving. It is rare to see many teachers as old as 40 in the staffrooms of nearly all schools now. I know this from personal experience as an ex-District Secretary who organised members in schools.
The main point though is that it is hard to win better pay and conditions and the leadership of the Union know this. They have chosen to focus on issues they can make ground on, which although pragmatic, are a substitute for the substantial issues of pay and conditions. Unwilling to reflect honesty on the difficulty of the situation since the 1980s and wanting a justification for their roles and positions, the leadership have focused on a host of other activities. Pet projects have always existed, but the focus on side issues has grown in recent years. Issues include support for Cuba and Palestine, equality grievance issues such as transphobia, homophobia, racism, sexism and discrimination of all kinds.
Historically, unions in Britain have been weakened by their inability to take a consistent position on oppression of women or immigrant groups. But today’s focus on minorities I would argue, is more about cultivating cliques and patronage within the union which is divisive and a poor substitute for being an effective union that improve the conditions for all teachers. These formal and informal power groups deliver votes for the General Secretary. This is all intuitively, or cynically and consciously, known by Courtney and others in elected positions in the union structure.
Finally, I would argue that the politics of identity has penetrated the union in the last five years or so. This infection has taken hold of many left-leaning individuals including the activists and those around the activists. Courtney knows he has to please them. He needs to hide his real views on issues, if they differ from the membership in case it loses him votes. He may be true believer in aspects of woke culture. It is certainly easier if you convince yourself that you believe in the ideas. Whatever his personal beliefs, he knows he needs to embrace identity politics enough in order to remain unchallenged until his retirement from his plus 100,000K job. This all adds up to the kind of speech that Kevin Courtney knows he must make to SUTR. One full of unsubstantiated assertions from someone that should know better. A speech that will remain unchallenged in the union because of lack of a lack of active members and the over-activity of a partisan minority .
* pseudonym used.