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Left with no purpose: unionists, get involved

"Time to fight on all fronts", "Solidarity with the Arab Spring", "Organise for Resistance", exhorted the leaflets thrust into delegates' hands as they approached the NUT annual conference in Torquay over Easter. The leaflets were distributed by, among others, the Socialist Teachers Alliance, the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union, Socialist Worker, Socialist Party Teachers and Socialist Resistance. Their purpose was to win support for their policies inside the conference. A bemused teachers' leader from overseas asked: "Who are those people?" It wouldn't have helped to reply, a la Michael Gove, "They're all Trots," because she didn't know who the Trots were either.

I have no doubt that many NUT members would have asked the same questions, for there are whole chunks of England and Wales that have not been showered with the messages of the ultra-Left. That would not matter if those organisations were as insignificant as they are in the real political life of this country. Unfortunately, they are significant within the NUT. Those linked to them now have a majority on the national executive and while, for many years, their main strength lay in big urban areas, the tenor of recent conferences suggests that their influence extends much further afield. There are many things happening in education today that anger teachers and may threaten their futures, but is what is being said in their name at the conference and in the executive truly representative of the views and attitude of the majority of NUT members? If not, what should be done?

Believing that something has to be done, I accepted an invitation to speak at a fringe meeting of the Broad Left, which consists of moderates and sensible activists who oppose political parties and factions trying to use the NUT for their own purposes. It was my 57th annual conference. I recalled how the union had achieved its successes in former times. When I joined its staff, the NUT had a broad membership and a broad leadership - broad enough to have a Conservative as treasurer and on occasion a Conservative or Liberal president. Plenty of local association officers had Conservative or Liberal affiliation and a number of Conservative MPs supported NUT policies. The fact that many ordinary members put their loyalty to the union before their party loyalties helped it to achieve several successes against Tory and, indeed, Labour ministers.

So how different is that from the situation in the union today? Undoubtedly, there has been a shift to the Left and the present government's policies and actions may cause a further shift. But I believe that there are still many NUT members who would not agree with the things being said and done in their name. Take, for example, what happened at the conference just before the last general election. When Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, called for opposition to all three main political parties, he received a standing ovation. But how many NUT members followed his advice when they voted?

Again, at this year's conference, delegates applauded wildly when a ranting speaker called on the union to bring down the government and another urged them to emulate the "Arab Spring". But they sat in silence when Haringey delegate Simon Horne, who in my view made some of the best speeches of the conference, sought to introduce a note of realism into the proceedings. I would be surprised if ordinary members reacted in a similar fashion.

In times past, the union's executive would give a lead to conference and intervene to modify motions. There has been precious little leadership of that kind in recent years, which points to the crucial importance of the role and composition of the executive. It is the executive, not the general secretary and her fellow officials - who take the key decisions between conferences - who should reflect the views of the whole membership.

Equally, individual members should care enough about the role of the executive to take a keen interest in the election of it. This year's voting figures hardly suggest such an interest.

Undoubtedly, NUT members, like most teachers, are under great pressure in their work and, as the conference agenda showed, they face new threats and challenges, so they may feel that they have little time for union affairs. But effort should surely be made to lead them to recognise the relevance of the union's decisions and reputation to their needs and aspirations.

There are, of course, times when the union calls for and gets the support of members, as it did last November for the action over pensions. But can it be honestly said that the majority of members are prepared to strike on issue after issue as the proposals, scattered like confetti in the agenda and adopted by conference, may require? And is it not time to consider seriously other forms of campaigning more likely to achieve the participation of members and the support of parents and the public, many of whom have plenty of problems of their own in these times of austerity?

Fortunately, whatever critics may say, the NUT remains a great organisation. It is never going to be easy for it to influence a government that is hostile to unions and public services. But it would surely have been useful if there had been discussion in Torquay on the lessons to be learned from the massive solidarity of the medical profession in its opposition to and impact on the government's health policies.

I have no doubt that the creation of a single professional body for teachers, as suggested by Ed Dorrell in TES ("Unions, you're in a hole. Better stop digging", 13 April), would be a great step forward. In the meantime, the greater involvement of individual NUT members in their union's affairs would be a valuable contribution to the protection and advancement of the education of children and their teachers.

Fred Jarvis was general secretary of the NUT from 1975 to 1989.

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