John Blake, a teacher, writer and co-editor of Labour Teachers, writes:
Last week, I did a terrible thing, which upset a number of people, and I’m really very sorry for it and I’d like to apologise: I’m sorry for accidentally tweeting that Tom was going to jilt Kirsty in The Archers and ruining the Sunday omnibus for other Archers fans. I didn’t think about it properly, it was wrong of me, I really am sorry. I also went on Newsnight and said that the NUT was in the hands of the Hard Left and unrepresentative of teachers. That also upset a lot of people, but I’m afraid I can’t apologise for that. I am, however, going to try to respond to some of the subsequent criticisms.
You can watch the piece that led into the debate:
And my appearance here:
The response from the NUT faithful has been angry and accusatory – that this is a terrible smear, untrue and part of a new “Red Scare”. I’d like to explain why that isn’t the case.
The driving fear of a Red Scare is that either a vast horde of angry, ideologically-committed folk stand ready to sweep capitalism from our shores, or that a highly-sophisticated tiny revolutionary cell is about to launch a coup.
You’d be hard-pressed to justify the first scenario: to most working people, now the Cold War has been over for twenty years, Leninism is something as exotic as Himalayan yak-herding and as unfathomable as Egyptian mystery cults; there are almost certainly more people in Britain today who practice Bikram yoga than any version of organised Communism.
As for the second, while it is true that a massively disproportionate number of Marxists are involved in public sector trade unions, no one – certainly not me – is concerned the NUT is about to launch a revolution. They’re having quite enough difficulty running an even moderately-successful industrial action campaign.
But the values and discourse that is common currency on the NUT executive and in the NUT conference is well outside the norms of modern democratic politics. There are Trotskyites involved in running the NUT (among the outgoing executive were at least two members of each of the Socialist Workers' Party, the Socialist Party and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty), but more than that, all the dominant voices in determining its direction are from, at a minimum, the very Left of the Labour Party, and most from well beyond that.
It is simply a fact that the Far Left runs the NUT, that its two factions hold a clear majority on the exec and that Christine Blower is herself from the Hard Left.
This TES report on Christine’s nomination for DGS illustrates the points quite clearly: everyone named as of the Left is currently a leading member of the NUT Executive (of the two others mentioned, one is now sadly deceased and one no longer actively involved in the NUT). Only the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, of the other major unions, has greater Far Left control*.
This isn’t frightening, it’s just embarrassing, and profoundly unrepresentative of the wider profession. And it isn’t enough for NUT conference regulars to respond: “But I went, I thought it was perfectly normal”. Of course you thought it was normal, you’re prepared to give up five days of your holiday to sit in a seaside resort conference centre talking about health and safety procedures, the ongoing success of the Venezuelan revolution and whether professional unity would be a good idea. These are not common behaviours.
That’s not a comment on NUT activists in particular: all activists, of all political stripes, are out-of-the-ordinary, because they choose to be actively involved in political discourse at all. Most people don’t, don’t want to and aren’t bothered. That doesn’t, however, mean that they are not important. In a way, the less willing they are to be directly involved, the more important they become.
All member-led organisations have to face the problem of activist capture, even though out of necessity they are led by their activists (the inactivists hardly ever turn up…); it is how activists choose to guard against their own personal unrepresentativeness that determines how successful their venture will be.
No thought is given to this question in the NUT; virtually none of the conference delegates and barely one-third of the NUT executive areas saw a contested election this year (and where there were elections, turn-outs were rarely higher than 12 per cent) but they carry on plodding away with the obviously-inadequate status quo regardless.
The days of mass member meetings in unions are gone (if they ever truly existed at all) and unions retaining the structures of those times can fool themselves they’re manifesting democratic will. But mostly what they get is activists talking to activists, without any requirement to consider what they look like to people outside the charmed circle**.
The danger of the NUT isn’t that they’re going to overthrow the state in one glorious action, but that they’re making the profession look silly, one inept political campaign at a time.
Juvenile conference attacks on leading politicians (incidentally, not a new trend: David Blunkett was once forced to take refuge in a side room from a conference mob), endless ill-planned and poorly-explained industrial action focused on unattainable – and often actively undesirable – ends, and a total unwillingness to proactively engage with government policy to deliver necessary reform is a disaster for the union.
Fundamentally, as I said on Newsnight, that’s their problem. But so long as the NUT bills itself as the biggest teaching union and exists in the popular imagination as the voice of teachers, its peculiar politics and bizarre behaviours are a problem to all of us.
*The PCS is, not incidentally, haemorrhaging members, losing its campaigns and close to bankruptcy. ** This is why Labour Teachers, which I founded and co-edit, works as it does: we wanted to build a discussion space, not a policy-making forum, where all parts of the party could write. We knew the minute we had policy and elections, we’d be back to dreary days of meetings packed with the already active and highly opinionated, and there are already groups for those people. As such, in the last four years, we’ve hosted blogs from all shades of party opinion, including front bench Labour politicians and dissatisfied Labour members, some of whom have since left the party, and run events attended by working classroom teachers engaging directly with policy-makers, without the need for gatekeepers.