Members of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) returned a thumping victory for left-winger Jo Grady in the recent general secretary elections. This finally ends 12 years of uninterrupted right-wing rule in the union.
There was a record turnout: up six percentage points from the last GS elections in 2017. On that occasion, the left candidate, Jo McNeill (who came third this year) lost to right-winger Sally Hunt by 41 to 59 percent.
This time, the combined left vote was over 70 percent in the first round. Grady received 49 percent of the vote in the first round, and 64 percent in the second round. The right-wing ‘continuity candidate’ Matt Waddup was utterly defeated.
Grady, a UCU member from Sheffield University, was the favoured candidate of rank-and-file activists who came into activity during the 2018 pensions strike. This was the biggest action in the history of our union.
Since then, UCU membership has increased by over 20,000, augmented by fresh layers who cut their teeth on the picket lines. In particular, the union’s ranks have been swelled by casualised staff, who face the sharp end of cuts, overwork and marketisation.
These factors were decisive in swinging the balance of forces to the left and securing a firm victory for Grady.
Break with the past
Such factors also help explain McNeill’s poor performance, despite her being a respected activist with a strong manifesto – particularly in its emphasis on fighting for a Labour government.
Unfortunately, the official Left Faction behind McNeill has alienated many rank-and-file activists with its bureaucratic methods and mild opposition to the right-wing leadership of the union. Hunt held members back for years, while the Tories oversaw terrible attacks on higher and further education. Throughout all of this, the Left Faction largely sat on the sidelines.
These limitations were understood by the new layers of members, some of whom attended their first-ever annual congress in 2018. At this, the right wing leadership manoeuvred in a disgusting fashion to avoid being held accountable for selling out the pensions strike. Now the chickens have finally come home to roost.
But at last year’s congress, the UCU Left barely put up a fight against this scheming. McNeill was simply too closely associated with the inertia and defeats of the past, and thus her campaign failed to inspire.
Instead, newer activists have rallied around Grady, who came to prominence during the pensions dispute with her USSbriefs website. This became a platform for grassroots members during the strike. Grady is therefore seen as a break with the past - someone who embodies the fighting spirit shown in that struggle.
The new UCU leader acknowledged her base of support in her statement after results were released: “This victory was won by, and for, the members of UCU. We have chosen to start a new chapter of open and democratic leadership in our union.”
Make the UCU a fighting union
With the union leadership election behind us and delegates currently meeting at this year’s Congress, now is the time to debate the way forward. One point not fully addressed by Grady's programme is the need to link our industrial struggles to the political fight for a Labour government.
Corbyn and McDonnell are promising free education from cradle to grave. The Tories are teetering on the brink of collapse in the aftermath of May’s resignation. Now is not the time to isolate our forces from the political plane. Instead, we must throw ourselves into the battle for a Corbyn government.
To take the union forward, we must connect our struggles for pensions, pay and decent contracts to a wider fight - that against the ultimate source of all the damage being done to the education system: the Tories and the capitalist system they represent.
UCU members must unify with students, staff in other education sector unions, and workers across the public sector and beyond, and fight for a socialist Labour government that will defend education into the future.
Furthermore, Grady must make good on her pledge to democratise our union so that it is led from below, rather than steered from the top down.
This is a clear victory for the left of the UCU. Members have sent a clear message of their willingness to fight for education. The new general secretary, therefore, has a very strong mandate to translate militancy into action.
Starting with the 2019 UCU Congress, currently underway, let us make the next academic year one of determined struggle: one in which academics join hands with students and support staff to wrest the education system back from the managers, bosses and bureaucrats!